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Friday, September 23, 2016

In Context: The Hunger

Composer Donnacha Dennehy’s opera about the Great Famine of 1845—52 brings together new music and old Irish songs, featuring ensemble Alarm Will Sound, folk singer Iarla Ó Lionáird, and soprano Katherine Manley. Context is everything, so get even closer to the production with this curated selection of related articles and videos. After you've attended the show, let us know what you thought by posting in the comments below and on social media using #TheHungerOpera.

Program Notes

The Hunger (PDF)


Tom Creed Talks About Directing Opera and Theatre
Ireland’s Civic Theatre interviews director Tom Creed about his work with opera, and his love of The Great British Bake Off.

Protestant New Yorker Who Saved Hundreds of Irish Famine Victims
A fascinating deep dive into the life of Asenath Nicholson, an American missionary whose wrenching firsthand account Annals of the Irish Famine serves as the opera’s primary source text.

Excerpts from Alarm Will Sounds's performance of The Hunger
A glimpse into the music of The Hunger alongside an informative historical summary.

Watch & Listen

Donnacha Dennehy: Composing With Frequency
Donnacha Dennehy discusses his penchant for fusing old (sean-nós and other Irish folk styles) and new music with WQXR’s “Meet the Composer.”

Sean-nós singer Iarla Ó Lionáird interprets “The Lament of the Three Marys.” (YouTube)
A haunting and beautiful rendition of the traditional Irish song.

Now your turn...

What did you think? Tell us what's on your mind in the comments below and on social media using #TheHungerOpera.


  1. We loved the opera and thought the singing was totally amazing. Also, the conductor was so musical and clear in his conducting and cueing of the singers and instruments. Our only complaint was that we were sitting in Row B, audience right, so about 5 rows from the orchestra, and the singers lyrics which were printed below the string players, was too low and we could not read the second line of text. It would have been lovely if the Lyrics had been at least a foot higher. Otherwise, an amazing performance. Congratulations!

  2. Bhí "The Hunger" an-spéisiúl. Ceapann go bhfuil sé an-tabhatach a chloiseann Gaeilge i Nua Eabhrac agus i Méiricea fosta. Tá súil agam go mbeidh "The Hunger" ag teacht go dtí aras eile agus go Nua Eabhrac arís.

  3. I am a fan of both Alarm Will Sound (I caught them at BAM in 2014 playing the music of John Adams) and Donnacha Dennehy, so I knew I was in for an evening of terrific music. What I didn't anticipate was how little I really knew about the Great Famine in Ireland. The libretto is frankly heart-breaking, and Katherine Manley sang the words of Asenath Nicholson with haunting beauty. Iarla Ó Lionàird's plaintive voice was deeply touching. The snippets of video interviews with the likes of Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman were enlightening, if not infuriating. (How could the powers that be let that tragedy happen? Oh, that's how.) The staging was clever: the effect of the Irish countryside was achieved, while ingeniously sharing the stage with the musicians, video monitors and subtitles. Overall, I thought the opera was extremely well-done, and I was sad to see so many empty seats in the opera house -- but this sort of performance is not for everyone. (The man who was nodding off to my left probably agrees!)

  4. Really enjoyed it. At many moments during the performance I found myself closing my eyes and just listening to the music and voices. Completely agree with above commenter, CurlyV, about the heartbreaking yet poignant libretto. The video clips definitely gave the piece deeper context but the presentation was a bit crude and borderline jarring. The production value of the video itself was a big part of that. Would have been nice if the interviews were integrated more creatively and seamlessly.

  5. I should add that the Nicholson's first hand account told through the music was quite moving.

  6. Donnacha Dennehy's new opera, The Hunger, heard last nite at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, focuses on the powerful story of the Irish Famine in the mid 19th century. The attractive music was of course well performed by Alarm Will Sound, conducted by Alan Pierson, as were the 2 vocal leads, especially the substantial soprano role by Katherine Manley. However, the heart-rending central story, such a natural for the opera stage, was undermined by the curious choice of interspersing socioeconomic commentary from figures such as Paul Krugman and Noam Chomsky on multiple video screens. I'd rather have an opera's music stir up some deep feelings rather than intellectually discuss the situation. And the hi-tech, elaborate staging (with the musicians scattered on platforms on the stage) seemed unconvincing, unnecessary, and at odds with this history of people starving to death. While there is no doubting the passionate sincerity of the composer, one could imagine a more engaging version that let the music and lyrics convey the deeply emotional story, that omits the out-of-place contemporary snippets, and that takes place with minimal, simple staging. But I'd like to hear more of Dennehy's music.

  7. I was moved by the production, but thought the class/colonialism analysis simplistic. After all, an 1845 epidemic of Phytophthora infestans struck Ireland, killing nearly 100% of the country's potatoes. ( )
    Native to Peru & the Andes, the potato was introduced to Ireland in the 17th C and proved so easy to grow and harvest that Irish farmers slowly abandoned traditional crops ( ). By the mid-19th C Irish peasants were utterly potato-dependent. So when the epidemic struck, it left them with no alternative staple crop. Leaving that out of "The Hunger" was a bit like describing The Great Mortality of the 14th C without mentioning Yersinia pestis aka The Plague. I found that startling and disingenuous. All the ensuring elements of British colonialism and brutality apply, yes, but the famine STARTED with a devastating plant disease.

  8. Ditto Cynthia Shaw above re 3rd row house right seats. . .powerful, beautiful music and performances - if only we could have seen the screens and especially the male performer. . .if only the strings had been stage level it might have been a little better.

  9. It was absolutely incredible: the story, the music, the performances. We were engaged the entire time. And, it reminded me of the horrible travails that my family endured upon deciding to and finally emigrating to the US

    A Donovan

  10. We are big fans of Alarm Will Sound (Christa teaches my boys oboe). A spectacular performance. The challenging but beautiful music played so well with the soprano's clear lines, the simple sets highlighted the human tragedy and the academic's commentary was a great sobering foil to the overall drama.


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