PAGLIACCI: An Interview with the Singers by Sinead Bevan

The Sydney Opera House, the Royal Opera house in London….here in Dublin, we feel a million miles away from these revered centres for the performing arts. But here we are, in the heart of the city centre, putting on a new performance of one of the best operas around. Can Dublin compete with its international counterparts? Is there such a thing as an Irish opera singer? In meeting the cast for Pagliacci, it seems the answer is ‘yes’, but they are few and far between. In casting Pagliacci, Wonderland Productions have picked some of the best young talent in Ireland, but they’ve also taken on board singers from the UK and from Poland. Quite simply, there are very few opportunities for singers in Ireland, and consequently, few singers.

Tristan and Donna are Pagliacci’s chorus male and female, and have followed a similar path to their current roles. Both have studied on the DIT course in Music Performance, and both came to singing quite late in life.

Tristan had a business background, but gave it up to return to the singing he had enjoyed while in school. “I basically thought, ‘If I don’t give it a shot now I’ll never get another chance.” Similarly, Donna was halfway through a science masters when she discovered she could sing, took some classes, “and the rest is history!”

This doesn’t mean that their current position is an easy one to maintain. Both bolster their income by singing at functions and ceremonies, or hiring themselves out to choir’s across Ireland.

Donna says “Most opera singers in Ireland go abroad. In terms of female singers, I can only name one who has stayed in Ireland and done really well and made a name for herself and that’s Sandra Oman. Almost everyone has to go abroad.” But this has not stopped Wojtek Smarkala coming to Dublin to fulfil his passion for singing and performance.

He has been singing for years, and has trained from a young age. Singing has taken him travelling across Europe, first in Poland and in Germany, working for agencies that put on musicals. For him, “singing is like a drug! I love opera, I could talk about it for hours.”

Wojtek has been in Dublin for three months, and playing the part of Beppe in Pagliacci is his first major role. It seems like a long time to wait, but as he points out with a smile and a shrug, “If you love to sing, then you need to be patient. The work will find you.” He has been training with Ireland’s leading voice coach Veronica Dunne, and clearly loves his time here.

Another fine import on the cast is Rhys, originally from Wales, who is playing the part of Tonio. Like Tristan, he came to singing later in life, when he became bored of his office job. “Voices for opera develop later in life anyway, as opposed to musical theatre where you can have a very short career. You’re past it at 22. I can thankfully continue until I’m really old and crusty!”

Like Wojtek, Rhys has also travelled around for his art, studying in Manchester and in Glasgow. However, this doesn’t bother him too much. “When I wake up in the morning, all I have to think is ‘Is there any other job in the world I’d rather be doing?’ And the answer is always ‘no.’ 99% of the days are really good.”

So it seems, that despite the lack of operatic opportunity in Ireland, our cast are simply delighted to be here. Hopefully, this performance of Pagliacci will encourage a new wave of interest in Opera in Ireland, and more roles for the hard-working cast.


Back to Wonderland’s Pagliacci Production Details 


Read an Introduction to Pagliacci


An Introduction to Pagliacci by Sinead Bevan

Pagliacci was first performed to critical acclaim in 1892 in Milan, and has continued to thrill and impress audiences for more than a century.  According to Opera America, it continues to be one of the most popular and widely performed opera of all time. Indeed, a good indication of its success can be garnered from the fact that Pagliacci’s most popular aria Vesti la Giubba became the first recording to sell a million copies in the States.

Described as “the apogee of verisimo”, Pagliacci was written by its composer in an attempt to bring a realism of emotion to opera. Never before had opera-going audiences witnessed such intensity, even if today the characters fulfil many clichés.

Its creation was somewhat controversial, as it’s composer, Leoncavallo had a plagiarism lawsuit brought against him, after it was noticed it bore a resemblance to an 1887 play of Catulle Mendès entitled, La Femme de Tabarin.  Leoncavallo was living in Paris at the time of its premiere, and it is likely that he saw the play. However, Leoncavallo maintained that the opera was actually based on a real event he witnessed as a child in Calabria, when his nurse took him to see a carnival in the town and a murder occurred. He also claimed that his father, who was a judge, had led the criminal investigation, and that he had documents supporting these claims. None of this evidence has ever appeared. Today most critics agree that the libretto was inspired by the French play and by the earlier success of Mascagni’s short opera Cavalleria Rusticana.

In truth, both operas are heavily influenced by ‘verismo’, and by the comedia dell’Arte style, and feature several storytelling devices that crop up time and time again throughout the history of music and theatre. This particular story features treachery and betrayal, mistaken identity and murder, thus highlighting what has made this opera so popular over time. In addition it features the concept of “the play within a play”, a dramatic trope that emphasised the importance of role-playing in society.

Leoncavallo was unable to repeat the success he had achieved with Pagliacci. He continued to write for many years, but was a victim of his own accomplishments, and quickly became bogged down in trying to better his primary effort. By the time he died in 1919, he had composed no other significant musical offerings.

There have been many notable performances of Pagliacci, including those where Pavarotti has played the role of Canio.


Back to Wonderland’s Pagliacci Production Details


Read an Interview with the Singers


Reviews: Pagliacci

John McKeown, The Daily Mail (Friday 14th March, 2008) ✮✮✮✮✮

Verdict: A spicy Italian Lunch.

Opera, however glorious, can sometimes be tiring to sit through. But writer/director Alice Coghlan has produced a trim abridgement of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a firey tale of a troupe of clowns torn apart by adultery and murder, with only piano accompaniment, that doesn’t stint on its most famous sequences.

Of these the aria Vesti la Giubba – put on the costume – a favourite of Pavarotti’s – is probably the most well-known. Canio (Ralph Strehle) the clown has just discovered that his wife Nedda (Emer Barry) is in love with someone else. But if the show is to go on, he must tuck his shame behind a clown’s mask. With his macho possessiveness and his violent temper, Canio is really the villain, but Strehle’s flexibly muscular tenor persuades us that brute though he is, his love for Nedda is real.

What is especially good about Emer Barry is the range her versatile soprano voice encompasses. We get the girlish delight with which she taunts the hunchback Tonio (Welshman Rhys Jenkins.) He’s smitten by her charms but intent on revenge when she laughingly rejects him. And in a lively duet with lover Silvio (Simon Morgan), we get all the tremulous eagerness of growing passion.

What makes the range of voices, from Jenkins soup-plate rattling tenor to Morgan‘s impetuous baritone, particularly appealing is Alice Coghlan’s pungent translation, which releases all the tempestuousness of the story line like a controlled explosion. She takes some inventive liberties. The full-stage version requires a chorus of villagers watching the show. Their place is taken here by a bad-mannered couple sharing a mobile and excitedly wondering what’s happening on stage. This is a lively enhancement of the ‘play within a play’ aspect of the opera. This singing, chattering, commenting couple give the show a sharply contemporary feel.

Miles Lallemant provides lively piano accompaniment for this hour of unbridled passions. It’s a show that should charm opera sceptics and delight the faithful.

  Michael Moffat, The Irish Mail on Sunday (Sunday 16th March, 2008) ✮✮✮✮


Tragic tears of a clown are a sheer joy to behold.

The Wonderland company is one of the most interesting young groups working in Ireland. At last year’s Dublin Fringe Festival, they gave us a sparkling Miser by Moliere and here, led by director Alice Coghlan, they do a smashing version of Leoncavallo’s one-act opera Pagliacci.

Using imaginative direction of her seven singers, Coghlan overcomes cramped surroundings and the difficulty of sound balance in a small room. Inevitably the accompanying piano occasionally competes with the singers but, in general, the very demanding piano part was played with great sensitivity by Elaine Brennan.

The two singers who form the chorus and audience for the harliquinade play-within-a-play are seated among the general audience. They also make a nice comic bow to the behaviour of actual theatre-goers, arriving late and not switching off their mobiles.

Pagliacci is a blend of realism and theatre in which the harliquinade, with tragic consequences, mirrors the story of Canio and his unhappy wife Nedda, who has a secret lover.

Emer Barry, originally understudying the role of Nedda took over at short notice but you would never guess it. She has a beautifully controlled voice, a good dramatic sense, and her change of style to a light touch that brings out the comic possibilities in the role of Colombina in the harliquinade, is particularly good. One of the highlights is her scene with lover Silvio (Simon Morgan), who matchers her vocally and dramatically.

Rhys Jenkins, as the lascivious Tonio, has a rich baritone, and he launches the opera, moving among the audience with a powerful rendition of the prologue. One of the pleasant aspects is the strength in the minor roles with Wojciech Smarkala as Beppe. Ralph Strehle as Canio gets the opera’s big aria, Vesti la Giubba, the song of the broken-hearted husband as he dons the motley of the clown for his performance in the stage show.

Coghlan has provided a literate translation, and the diction, often poor in opera, is generally excellent. There’s no reason why problems of balance can’t be worked out as the show settles down.

Metro (Thursday 13th March, 2008) ✮✮✮✮


Given that Pagliacci could well be considered one of the most well-known operas – its most popular aria Vesti la Giubba, became the first ever recording to sell over a million copies in America – it would seem that Bewleys along with Wonderland Productions, are intent on opening up the genre to the masses.

There is something both exclusive and embracing about opera, exclusive in that it is generally in a foreign language, yet embracing in that, no matter what your linguistic skills, once performed few could fail to understand the emotion. The language problem is removed here to some extent, as the majority of this production is in English, although how much clearer that makes it is debatable; there is something disconcerting about a single syllable lasting more than 30 seconds. And the emotion is crystal sharp, almost cutting in some places, particularly during the heart stopping Vesti la Giubba.

The plot is your typical mix of betrayal, jealousy and murder – in fact writer Ruggero Leoncavallo faced plagiarism charges after its release due to its similarity to another work. Canio, played superbly by Ralph Strehle, is the head of a troupe of clowns and suspects his wife and fellow performer, Nedda, is cheating on him.

Emer Barry’s Nedda is wonderfully cheeky and playful and her lover Silvio, played by Simon Morgan, is perfectly devoted and lovelorn. Rhys Jenkins plays Tonio, the fool, whose interaction with the audience which includes singing to and sitting with them, brings a fun element although at points verges on the pantomime. There are two ‘audience members’ who are seated with us civilians who shout and whoop at appropriate moments that are a far more welcome quirk.

The Dubliner (Tuesday 4th March, 2008)


Get thee to Bewleys.
A star is born… in Bewleys.

This afternoon Emer Barry, took to the stage of Bewleys café theatre for the first preview of Pagliacci, or the Clowns, a marvellous new opera. Barry excelled in the role, and is likely to – deserves to, anyway – receive rave reviews for her performance. But she is not the only reason to see this quirky production.

The whole show – the first time that an opera has been produced on the tiny Grafton Street stage – is another triumph for young English director Alice Coghlan, whose production of Moliere’s Miser was one of the highlights of the Fringe Festival last year.

Funny, poignant and beautifully sung, Pagliacci is going to be a hit.
And tomorrow’s performance is already sold out.


Back to Pagliacci Production Details                      Read More Wonderland Reviews


PAGLIACCI (or the Clowns)

b_Pagliacci-P The Opera Pagliacci by R. Leoncavallo is sung in a new English translation by Director Alice Coghlan. Pagliacci is one of the world’s best loved operas, and is inspired by a murder the composer witnessed as a boy in Calabria – when his wet nurse took him out to see the carnival players.

Over lunch at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre audiences discover what happens behind the merry scenes of their Italian commedia dell’Arte. Dainty Nedda holds a romantic tryst with an Irish usher, whilst the buffoon Tonio spies from the stalls. The hunchback reports back to her old husband Canio – leaving the heartbroken clown, to sing the great tenor aria ‘Vesti la Giubba’. For show time is here and he must play cuckold to her Colombina. Or else sink his knife into her fetid blood…


What the Critics Say


“a triumph…funny, poignant and beautifully sung. Pagliacci is going to be a hit.”  – The Dubliner


“a show that should charm opera sceptics and delight the faithful…releases all the tempestuousness of the story like a controlled tragi-comic explosion” –  Daily Mail ✮✮✮✮


“A lunchtime treat …this inventive production has style and verve” –  Sunday Business Post ✮✮✮

Read Full Reviews


Read an Interview with the Singers

Read an Introduction to Pagliacci


From Wonderland Productions Ltd.
Rhys Jenkins, Simon Morgan, Joan O’Malley, Wojciech Smarkala & Ralph Strehle.
Emer Barry, Tristan Caldwell, Simon Machale, Cormac Ό Corcoráin, Donna Gallagher, Colm Lalor & Anne Marie Sheridan

The Production Team
Director/Translator: Alice Coghlan
Repiteur/Accompanist: Elaine Brennan
Design: Alice Butler
Lighting Design: Sophy Bradshaw Power
Dramaturgy: Irene Dei
Producer: Robert Bradish
Associate Producer: Emer Mullarkey
Production Manager: Martin Wunderlich
Assistant Directors: Sheila O’Reilly & Orna Joyce
Stage Management: Sophie Flynn & Fiona Keller
Photography & Poster/Flyer Design:


Reviews: Life Shop Till You Drop!

Sara Keating, The Irish Times (Friday 29th May 2009)
Wonderland Theatre For theatre companies such as Wonderland, who are used to fending for themselves, the recession and funding cuts are not seen as a threat. Artistic director Alice Coghlan tells SARA KEATING about creating ambitious shows on a shoestring

WE DIDN’T HEAR much about “independent theatre” during the boom years, when expanding budgets across government departments was translated into increases in State subsidies for artists and arts organisations. But now that those budgets are shrinking again, Arts Council-funded organisations are struggling to maintain their prolific output under new financial conditions. With once-crowded theatre calendars begin to thin out as a consequence of, and in fear of further, funding cuts, it is an opportunity for independent theatre companies – seasoned to shoestring budgets and a skeleton production staff – to make their mark. Wonderland Theatre is one such company which seems to be coming into its own.

Wonderland, under the artistic direction of director and writer Alice Coghlan, has produced 10 new theatre productions since 2003, productions which have been as varied in form as in artistic style. They have ranged from traditional stagings of ghost stories to obscure sound-art performance pieces, and from intimate lunchtime operas to site-specific productions of Molière’s famous French comedies. Take, for example, two of the company’s most recent productions: a new translation of an obscure Italian restoration comedy, La Locandiera (or Mirandolina ), by Carlo Goldoni, accompanied by a four-course dining experience, and a one-act, one-woman, self-help spoof, Life Shop Till You Drop , which embarks on its fourth national tour this week.

While the ongoing success of Life Shop Till You Drop comes as a constant surprise to Coghlan, who wrote and first directed the show in 2007, she says that Wonderland “have always been very ambitious about what we want to achieve, no matter what the project is, no matter how little funding there is to support us”.

“Even so, when we first produced it at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre and Alan King suggested we take a three-week run, we thought there was no way that we would fill the venue. In the end it was the best-selling show that Bewley’s ever had, and it has become more successful rather than less successful the more we have produced it. It’s even been to Abu Dhabi! When we were on tour in Navan, someone from the Irish society there saw it, and invited us to bring it over to entertain the expats.”

Coghlan puts the show’s success down to the constant “quest for happiness” in contemporary society. “It taps into that neurotic side of us that is always looking for advice, or wondering what someone else would say or do,” she says. “But it questions it too, and also satirises the whole self-help industry, which is making billions out of our need to be happy. It’s basically saying that we need to take charge of our own destiny.”

The optimism of the show chimes well with Wonderland’s philosophy of creating work from meagre means. “I wish I could say it was some great decision not to get funded,” Coughlan jokes, “but the truth is we have tried. You know, we could have produced another show in the time we’ve spent filling out funding application forms, but we haven’t had any luck, despite great reviews and strong audiences for all our work. But all of the established companies – Rough Magic, Loose Canon, Bedrock – they all had to start from somewhere. Not being funded and finding other ways to do your work, whether that’s through profit-share or whatever, is just part of the process. We still have to make the best show that we can.”

In fact, the success of Life Shop Till You Drop has played a vital part in the company’s growth, as it is touring that provides it with some security in terms of income.

“When we tour, we are booked and paid by the venue, so it cuts the risk for us and means that we can all be paid properly and put whatever extra we make back into our next show,” Coghlan says. “And at this stage the show pretty much runs itself, so I can go down and set it all up with Clodagh but still have time for other projects.”

AND SO, as Life Shop Till You Drop heads off this week on another tour, Coghlan begins another Wonderland adventure, perhaps the company’s most ambitious yet: a site-specific production of Brendan Behan’s iconic but rarely produced Irish classic, The Hostage , at the newly renovated Pearse Centre on Pearse Street, the house where Pádraig Pearse lived until he was 12.

The month-long run, with a massive cast, will surely pose a big financial challenge for the company, but Wonderland is used to dealing with such eventualities. The production will fill a gap in the summer calendar, as more established theatre companies slim down their schedules in anticipation of the ever more difficult funding climate to come.

Roz Butler, Dublin Metro  (23rd January 2007)  ✮✮✮✮
Are you a self-help junkie? If so perhaps you could do with a little detox. This cautionary tale offers the perfect solution. Ailish McGovern (Clodagh Reid) is a girl who seems to practise more self-hindrance than self-help, and her story might ensure that you turn your back on pop psychology once and for all.

Recruitment Consultant Ailsih is 36 and single. Since the death of her father over a year ago, she has become very vulnerable. To cushion her grief she obsessively turns to self-help manuals in order to improve her life. Whether it comes to the trials of dating or tribulations of the work place, this girl has a text book to help her deal with every conceivable situation. She can barely step out the door without seeking advice from one guru or another. When she meets the man of her dreams, she goes into overdrive, manipulating situations so that he can see she’s clearly the one. The consequences are disastrous.

Ailish is like a little girl lost. Behind the biting comedy, Reid portrays with great understanding a lonely woman who is struggling to come to terms with her grief. As a result no matter how ridiculous Ailsih’s predicaments become, one always feels sympathy for her plight. And yet the only tears shed are ones of hilarious laughter. While there are undoubtedly touching elements to the play, the overriding tone is light and fun, thanks to Alice Coghlan’s wonderfully feel-good script and Reid’s ability to inhabit a number of comic characters, from Ailish’s irritating boss to her chain smoking matchmaker.

Edel Coffey, Sunday Tribune (21st January 2007)
January is an apt time to see a play about the evils of self-help books and new years resolutions. So Life Shop till you Drop, a one-woman show that casts a satirical eye over one year in the life of single thirty-something Ailish McGovern (played by Clodagh Reid), is a salutory lesson in what not to read.

McGovern has vowed 2007 will be the year she finds love, a promotion and ultimately happiness. Armed with nine of the best-selling self help books she aimshigh – to be branch manager of her recruitment agency, get married and win the Irish Tatler Woman of the Year award.

Writer and director Alice Coghlan’s clever script and pitch perfect self-help jargon are a delight, colourfully illustrating how we unconsciously use these phrases in our everyday home and work life.

There are funny portrayals of desperate singletons, with Ailish coming off like a manic Bridget Jones (scary thought), taking “Me Days” off work so she can do some “motivational crying”. Amidst the laughs, Coghlan makes the more serious point that most of the advice in these self help books is rubbish – and in the case of Ailish can do more harm than good. But she’s also pointing an accusatory finger at wider society. It’s not just the pop psychologists who are to blame for young women’s unhappiness with the single life but the “singles police” too – the mothers and married siblings who put pressure on those longing to find a soul mate, not to mention the modern-day pressure society puts on women to “have it all”: husband, children, career, oh, and that Woman of the Year Award.

This is a comic satire however and there are plenty of laughs , such as when Ailish finds out the man she is seeing is married with a child. Her sister tells her, “You’re just like that book Mam got us for Christmas you’re a woman who loves too much”. Underneath the laughs though Alice Coghlan questions whether the self-help industry has helped us or whether it has actually duped us into creating neuroses that were never there in the first place, putting off the men that may otherwise have been interested in us … and quite possibly ruining our chances of happiness.

Gerry Colgan, The Irish Times (January 19th 2007)
This one-hour lunchtime play, written and directed by Alice Coghlan, gets off to a neat start. A vivacious 36-year old woman in the audience leaps to her feet to receive an award – Tatler Woman of the Year. She is impelled to share her story of her success, and begins a year earlier when she identified two objectives: to get married and to get promoted.

Ailish is riddled with intellectual and verbal clichés such as ‘think in ink’ – writing them down will help us to remember her pearls of wisdom. For the matrimonial stakes she goes to a modern matchmaker, who fixes her up with dubious partners. Ailish learns that she has to kiss a lot of frogs to find her prince. On the job front, she is hired by a recruitment consultancy firm, which demands that you recruit more employees and keep doubling up to make any money. But it gives her a nice title to peddle to men at the dating agencies as she pursues her rules in shopping for life’s rewards. We follow Ailish through increasingly desperate initiatives until the play ends as it began, with a surprise.

It seems that the self-help industry is now a commercial reality, generating huge profits from the inchoate desires of people to be happy and successful. This gives the play a satirical edge, although its exaggerations are rooted in farce. Clodagh Reid plays Ailish with comic versatility, generating continuous laughter.


Back to Life Shop Till You Drop! Details                 Read More Wonderland Reviews