October 13, 2015 / 11:10 AM / 3 years ago

In Irish 'Last Hotel' opera, guest checks in and totally out

LONDON (Reuters) - "The Last Hotel" sounds like the title of a horror movie in which the guests check in but don't check out, and the video trailer (here opens with a woman with a haunted gaze standing at a reception desk.

The collaboration between Donnacha Dennehy, one of Ireland’s best known contemporary composers, and prize-winning Irish playwright Enda Walsh contains moments of the macabre and black humor. But the 80-minute opera is actually about assisted suicide.

“Whether someone has the right to decide, it’s a huge question,” Dennehy, 45, told Reuters in an interview in London, where the opera opened last week for six performances in the Royal Opera House’s Lindbury Studio Theatre. It will be performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in January.

Dennehy’s collaboration with Walsh, who won a Tony award for his stage musical adaptation of the film “Once”, is based on a true incident that occurred in Ireland in 2002, in which an Irishwoman sought assistance to commit suicide.

The action has been moved to a seedy seaside hotel. The woman, sung by Northern Irish soprano Aoife Miskelly, is assisted by an English couple, sung by English baritone Robin Adams and English soprano Katherine Manley, who have come over on the ferry to help her. Irish actor Mikel Murfi plays the non-singing role of hotel porter.

“It’s basically that the woman organizes her own suicide and what’s even more striking about it is that she rehearses with them first,” Dennehy said. “This is the thing that really kind of caught my attention, was the idea you’d have a structure where you rehearse your own death.”

Despite the grim theme, “The Last Hotel” manages to elicit laughs. The English husband is concerned about the food at the hotel buffet, and throws a fit when the mashed potatoes are off.

He also indulges in squirm-inducing day-dreaming about how he is going to use the money earned from helping the woman die to build an extension to the couple’s tiny house.

At the end, the Englishwoman sings that the dead woman’s spirit breathes in the walls of their home.

It is heady stuff but Dennehy, former Trinity College, Dublin music lecturer who now teaches at Princeton, doesn’t do simple.

He made a big splash in music circles with his 2011 Nonesuch recording “Gra agus Bas” (Love and Death, in Gaelic), which combines traditional Irish “sean nos” singing by vocalist Iarla o Lionaird with music by Irish contemporary music group Crash Ensemble.

His next project, Dennehy said, is an oratorio “The Hunger” based on contemporary texts by an American woman, Asenath Nicholson, who witnessed the suffering and death of the mid-19th century Irish potato famine.

“They should be collected for schoolchildren,” Dennehy said. “They’re the most vivid contemporary accounts.”

Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Catherine Evans

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