Orpha Phelan

Stage director

"Intelligently and movingly staged by Orpha Phelan."

Opera Magazine

"Orpha Phelan’s direction was imaginative, often striking."

The Evening Standard

"Orpha Phelan’s production packs a strong emotional punch."

Opera Now

"Absolutely one of the most complete stagings I’ve ever seen in an opera."

Skanska Dagbladet

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Orpha Phelan has directed opera nationally and internationally for the last fifteen years. A favourite with Scandinavian audiences, Orpha has recently made her debut in Denmark with the Royal Danish Opera with her new production of Powder Her Face. She has enjoyed tremendous successes in Sweden at Malmö Opera with La Bohème, Les Contes d’Hoffmann and Jenůfa, recently released by Arthaus Musik on DVD to rave reviews. Orpha’s production of Così Fan Tutte with Opera Theatre Company in 2012/13 marked her first production in her native Ireland. Projects in 2016/17 included Billy Budd for Opera North, Dead Man Walking for Royal Danish Opera, and Fidelio for Longborough. In 2017/18 she returns to Malmö Opera with a new production of Fiddler On The Roof.

Orpha has recently directed l’Orfeo at The Barbican, a collaboration with Richard Egarr and The Academy of Ancient Music. Her staging of the UK premiere of Jonathan Harvey’s Wagner Dream, also at The Barbican, marked her first collaboration with Martyn Brabbins and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. She has directed I Capuleti e i Montecchi for Opera North and Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House, under the baton of Richard Bonynge. 

Orpha has worked on several productions at The Royal Opera, Glyndebourne, Opera North and Wexford Opera and has directed workshops for Welsh National Opera, Opera North, Aldeburgh and Almeida Opera. She was awarded the Audience Prize (Ring Award 2005), for her concept of Le Nozze di Figaro with Graz Oper, Austria and Wagner Forum Graz; she was also a winner in the European Opera Directors’ Award 2003 for her concept of Hans Heiling for Strasbourg Opera in association with Opera Europa.

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Fiddler on the Roof

Malmo Opera, September 2017

"Irish director, Orpha Phelan's finest production at Malmö Opera.

Martin Lagerholm, Ystads Allehanda

"Rich, touching and funny ... Do not miss it!

Yvonne Erlandsson, Skånskan

"In view of today's persecution and refugees flowing across borders, this updated version of "Fiddler on the roof" is hugely politically relevant.

Ingemar Olander, Blekinge Läns Tidning

"Timeless drama in a fine setting." 

Martin Lagerholm, Kristianstadsbladet

"Irish director Orpha Phelan and her artistic team have managed to capture its gripping symbolism. … Malmö opera has launched the autumn season with a very strong and powerful musical.

Johanna Paulsson, Dagens Nyheter

Fidelio

Longborough Festival Opera (June 2017)

A challenging, provocative and highly rewarding evening. ... This is a production that stays with you and makes you think not just about the opera’s key themes – about totalitarianism and corruption – but about the future of prisons. This is a director-designer duo whose careers will be fascinating to follow.

David Lister, The Independent ****

Phelan has come up with powerful answers

Richard Bratby, The Spectator

A  plucky and lively Fidelio that's filled with light and hope

Rupert Christiansen, The Telegraph

imaginative and unsettling

Edward Bhesania, The Stage

Dead Man Walking

Royal Danish Opera (January 2017)

Phelan’s hard-hitting production went for the big moments with no holds barred.

Andrew Mellor, Opera News

Thoroughly well put together ... A strong and moving staging by Orpha Phelan, of a strong and moving work. Too much for anyone ... but it is great art.

Søren Kassebeer, Berlingske ******

Staged with great understanding by Irish director, Orpha Phelan.

Knud Cornelius, Frederiksborg Amts Avis *****

In Orpha Phelan's direction the story flows clearly. Her staging is solid. ... A brilliant design.

Carlhåkan Larsén, HD

The audience is saved no details. Experiencing this production of Dead Man Walking is like watching a film immersed in a large musical aquarium of emotions. Depicted vividly with cinematic accuracy….this is a sharply staged production.

Politiken *****

No imperfections in this production of Orpha Phelan’s where the staging and design are expansive, yet flexible.

Peter Dürrfeld, Kristeligt Dagblad *****

Billy Budd

Opera North (2016)

Orpha Phelan's attentive, top notch production brings this tremendous work into focus. The shattered wall is, as we move into extended flashback, hoisted to suggest, ingeniously, a sail...At the end, Billy memorably makes a virtue of simplicity, facing death, on an empty stage, with soaring stoicism.

Kate Kellaway, The Observer ****

A must-see new production of Billy Budd from Opera North, with a spine-tingling chorus and a gripping production. In a production as strong as Orpha Phelan’s new staging for Opera North, the formal structure amplifies the emotion, archetypes become living humans, and the emotional effect is overwhelming. A thoughtful, atmospheric and grippingly tense production.

Richard Bratby, The Spectator

Opera North's new staging is the work of Irish director, Orpha Phelan, who lets Britten's harrowing opera speak for itself. Phelan tells the story honestly and effectively.

Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times

Irish director Orpha Phelan takes up the challenge for Opera North, creating a staging of Billy Budd that succeeds equally in realising its mystery and transcendence. ... The show is regularly visually striking.

George Hall, The Stage ****

Staged with potent skill by Orpha Phelan. The period style is traditional, the story well told. The relationships are very precisely geared by Phelan and entirely believable with no overacting. In fact it’s the best-cast performance of the opera I have seen, without a single less than immaculate performance.

Tom Sutcliffe, The Critics’ Circle

Clarity and strength are the assets of Orpha Phelan's new production for Opera North: no gimmicks, superb company work and three principals for the battle of good and evil all equal to their dramatic challenges at a level I haven't seen for decades.

David Nice, The Arts Desk

More than merely claustrophobic...the production put the focus on issues of freedom, democracy and attitudes to dictatorship...sullen resentment at its most intense, yet it managed to be fierce and alert.

Richard Wilcocks, backtrack ****

Powder Her Face

Royal Danish Opera (2016)

A modern classic. Captivating, convincing, virtuosic staging. A delight to the eyes and ears, combined with touches of true horror. ... We laugh at the Duchess but at the same time we feel sorry for her. Her attempt to fill up her life with some meaning and excitement is completely understandable through the brilliant idea of the young silent Duchess.

Søren Kassebeer, Berlingske ******

Precise with a perfect balance between the amusing and the tragic. Anne Margrethe Dahl is touching, vulnerable, staggering, worn out.. trying to keep up appearances in her seedy suite…Letting her daughter perform as her younger self is a brilliant idea. In Orpha’s direction the opera is as fresh as it was in 1995.

Thomas Michelsen, Politiken ******

The production at the Takkelloftet is consistently elegant, with role and scene changes taking places on an otherwise static set, the main elements of which are a double bed, a sofa, a bathtub and fixtures for sadomasochistic practices.

Gregers Dirckinck-Holmfeld *****

The roguish and alluring tone of the tango is reminiscent of past times and lets director Orpha Phelan present the Duchess’ life over the course of two hours and eight scenes in a light and understandable way, as it flashes in front of her eyes: mostly as comedy, but with the tragedy always present in [her] slow demise.

Sune Anderberg, Klassisk ****

Wagner Dream

Barbican Centre, London (January 2012)

Intelligently and movingly staged by Orpha Phelan.

Opera Magazine

Orpha Phelan’s direction was imaginative, often striking.

Barry Millington, The Evening Standard

Jenůfa, Malmö Opera

Arthaus Musik DVD 101665 (2011)

...Phelan’s Jenůfa is sung with musical and dramatic precision by the kind of tight ensemble not often seen in world class opera. Voice, theatre and orchestra are all of a piece, revealing powerful undercurrents of sexual shame and religious devotion borne out of fear...Orpha Phelan’s production looks purposely two dimensional yet remains atmospheric enough that one is never kept at an objective distance. Yet the performance does leave room for the listener to stand back and appreciate how the opera accomplishes what it does, partly because the performance makes its points on details, both psychological and musical... For an unflinching Jenůfa, I’ll choose Malmö.

David Patrick Stearns, Gramophone

Orpha Phelan’s production packs a strong emotional punch. Set just after the Second World War, it highlights the bleak existence of the community and the struggle to survive in an unforgiving physical and moral environment. Kostelnicka is no monster but a damaged and flawed woman trying to rationalise her situation. Likewise Jenůfa is not just buffeted by events but strengthens her sense of self worth as the tragedy unfolds. A powerful production which is very well filmed.

Francis Muzzu, Opera Now

One can only be grateful for Phelan’s enthusiasm for the piece itself and for her dedication to it. The production eminently deserved documentation; it is competitive with any of the other three fine Jenůfas currently on DVD and should be shared with the widest possible audience. What matters most in any Jenůfa is whether the Personenregie works - and it’s superb here.

International Record Review

Absolutely one of the most complete stagings I’ve ever seen in an opera.

Lars-Erik Larrson, Skanska Dagbladet

A perfect staging at Malmö Opera - it is worth traveling over the bridge for a sharp and intense experience with Jenufa. Everything about the current staging of Leos Janacek’s Czech masterpiece is simple and tight, without exaggerated gestures - and that is why it is so powerful. This March you can experience it at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin where star director Christoph Loy stages this opera. But it's hard to imagine a much more satisfactory production than that which director Orpha Phelan and designer Leslie Travers have created in Malmö.

Thomas Michelsen, Politiken. DK

A world class Jenufa. The Irish director Orpha Phelan, who last spring gave us her strong Tales of Hoffmann in Malmö, together with her set designer Leslie Travers, skillfully uses Malmö Opera’s enormous stage to concentrate us on the essentials of the drama. Not to be missed.

Lenna Bromander, Aftonbladet Kultur

I Capuleti e I Monteccho

Opera North / Opera Australia (2009)

At the Grand in Leeds, Orpha Phelan directs an expectedly hard-hitting and contemporary account of Bellini’s Romeo and Juliet opera, I Capuleti e i Montecchi ...[and] takes an audacious theatrical tilt at Bellini....Phelan and her designer, Leslie Travers, boldly update the action to the here and now. The Capulets and Montagues could be rival gangs anywhere — Naples, Chicago, Belfast, St Petersburg — and they are armed to the teeth; and the love story’s hinterland of feuding families is transformed into an in-yer-face foreground. In the opening scene, a female Montague “sniper” is captured by the Capulets and summarily executed — shockingly, by a gunshot fired by a small boy, egged on by the adults. Initially, this seems gratuitous, but it abruptly establishes the ruthlessness of the milieu in which Romeo and Giulietta find themselves — and the corrupting brutality of vendetta. Later, a Juliet double (Marie Hallager Andersen) is manhandled and thrown around the stage like a puppet on a string by her own relatives when her tryst with Romeo becomes public. On the whole, I find mute-actor alter egos irritating — and a bit of an insult to the artist being “doubled” — but here the image of Giulietta dreaming of her own rejection by her family worked potently and disturbingly. I had never imagined that Bellini’s opera could be so harrowing. Travers’s sets are disarmingly simple, an almost bare stage with a neo-Renaissance parquet floor, which fragments dramatically in Act II, as if caught in a photograph the moment a bomb has exploded underneath it. The symbolism of a fractured world is no less devastating for being obvious...Phelan gets wonderful acting performances from her cast.

Hugh Canning, The Sunday Times

Played out in a bomb-torn ballroom, with shards of parquet flooring suspended mid-explosion like a Cornelia Parker installation, Orpha Phelan's modern-dress I Capuleti e i Montecchi for Opera North makes a strong case for the opera Berlioz described as "disgusting, ridiculous, impotent”. While the Capulets train their children to kill using enemy prisoners as their targets, Giuletta (Marie Arnet) watches helplessly as her body-double is thrown across the stage like a rag doll. The tone is muted, desperate, caged...

Anna Picard, The Independent

...a production that makes engrossing theatre without smudging the music's beauty... The Irish director Orpha Phelan and her designers Leslie Travers and Chris Davey choose an abstract modern-dress setting that is as simple as it is vivid. The cast, led by Sarah Connolly's world-class Romeo and Marie Arnet's virginal Juliet, create strong personalities that embody Bellini's rapturous music... This Capuleti proclaims the many virtues of bel canto - and of Opera North.

Andrew Clark, Financial Times

...Orpha Phelan's imaginative staging, beautifully designed by Leslie Travers.... Phelan is sensible enough to let [Romeo and Giulietta] emote without undue distraction...

Anthony Holden, The Observer

Orpha Phelan's new Opera North production of I Capuleti e i Montecchi relocates Bellini's take on Romeo and Juliet to an unspecified urban war zone in the late 20th century...Phelan is right to emphasise an aspect of the opera that most directors ignore. Discussions of I Capuleti usually focus on its relationship to Shakespeare and the fact that it reworks Romeo and Juliet's sources rather than the play itself. We are incessantly reminded that there is no balcony scene, that Bellini's Lorenzo is a doctor not a priest, and that Tybalt and Paris are conflated into a single figure called Tebaldo. The greatest difference is frequently glossed over, however: where Shakespeare sets drama against the backdrop of an internicine family feud, Bellini positions his lovers on opposite sides of a senseless, if engulfing civil war. Phelan is determined we should never forget this for a second...Not for the faint-hearted, but highly recommended...

Tim Ashley, The Guardian

Irish born director Orpha Phelan has transferred Bellini's version of Romeo and Juliet from medieval Italy to a mid 20th century civil war in an unspecified city. The conflict between the two clans evokes comparison with the sectarian strife in the Balkans or Northern Ireland. The opening scene has the Capuleti hurrying to a council of war, gaining entrance through a door with a spyhole in a bullet-riddled wall. The men lovingly pass around a rifle before awarding it to a child for the privilege of executing a captured sniper. It's not a conventional view of Italy's most lyrical and elegant of bel canto composers yet Phelan and designer Leslie Travers understand that the world Bellini describes is far more macho than in Shakespeare's play... Phelan's concept works well for this highly charged drama... the final scene is of heart touching pathos.

Clare Colvin, The Sunday Express

If we had thought we were in for a gentle romance that goes horribly wrong, Orpha Phelan’s production quickly disabused us. A young lad shot a ‘sniper’ in the head as the curtain rose... the cold-blooded, modern brutality of Baghdad or Belfast came easily to mind. Leslie Travers’s set for Act 2, with dangling wreckage and a shattered chandelier, underlined the internecine strife, as did the bodies of the injured littering the stage as if in the aftermath of a bomb blast.... Phelan managed to weld as international a cast as we have seen into a persuasive team. Most of all, she capitalized on the warlike atmosphere to heighten the tension between the lovers. There was always the feeling, even in their great duet in Act 1, which Connolly and Arnet handled with compelling tenderness, that they were living on borrowed time... Much was made in some quarters of the uniformly sombre costumes. The criticism was surely irrelevant, given the context: military men, let alone terrorists are not known for their loud outfits, nor are opera stages supposed to substitute for art galleries...The chorus was typically forceful. With the serene love scenes and the surrounding violence chillingly contrasted, this was hard-hitting theatre.

Martin Drever, Opera

We find ourselves in the charred and pockmarked landscape of 20th-century civil war. It seems an unlikely setting for an 1830’s opera... but the great achievement of Bellini’s score was the way it combined ardent feeling with formal fluency, allowing the opera’s tragic action to flow in an out of its beautiful, often melancholy arias. It’s this dynamism, approaching naturalism, that Irish director Orpha Phelan’s approach suits. Bellini’s operas are often presented literally, as costume dramas. Instead Phelan gives us a Juliet so traumatized and assaulted by the vicious shocks of war she never dons the wedding dress her father has ordered for her, dying in grimy petticoat and pantyhose. The production's design palette of charcoal, earth and dried blood is reflected in the vocal colouration of the predominantly male chorus. Its movingly restrained performance is integral to the show’s success.

Sybil Nolan, The Herald Sun, Australia

Orpha Phelan’s production is purposefully set in no specific time or place. Drawing on the minimalist tradition of Japanese Noh theatre, the design (Leslie Travers) was strong and stark....with a beautifully oppressive shattered light box as Juliet’s chamber. The disparity between the sheer beauty and lyricism of Bellini’s music, and the harsh severity of the environment was very effective, emphasising the tragedy of love striving against conflict.

Olympia Bowman-Derrick, Australian Stage

Phelan captures Bellini’s original context... though he was a moderniser in his way, Bellini fell foul of the shift towards realism in theatre and a more symphonic conception in music. Phelan juxtaposes the gentle expressiveness of Bellini's lines with grim, dehumanised realism of modern sectarian violence: a young boy (Alexander Keighley) is taught to shoot an enemy woman before he is held hostage, a knife at his throat. The assertive disconnection between music and drama thus embodies the love-and-hate dichotomy at the heart of the Romeo and Juliet story. We have grown to expect that the hate will be portrayed by little more than costumed sword-play, and Phelan's confronting approach was bound to ruffle feathers. For me, the incongruity of setting added an effective edge...

Peter McCallum, The Sydney Morning Herald

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