“The Banshee” preview: confronting the dark side

UO Music Today Festival premieres a new opera by Daniel Daly


When his University of Oregon graduate school professor suggested that master’s degree candidate Daniel Daly consider composing a chamber opera for his thesis project, Daly’s immediate thought was, “I can’t do that!”

After all, Daly knew from his study of music history, creating an opera was a massive undertaking. “I shied away from the project because of the scope of the composition and the logistics of getting a production together,” Daly recalls. Writing the opera’s libretto, composing the musical score for voice and orchestra, scheduling rehearsals, workshopping the opera and revising, then bringing all the elements together for a public performance all seemed overwhelming.

Dylan Bunten, Sarah Brauer, Olivia Oxholm, and Alison Kaufman performed April 29 at the Oregon Composers IV concert performance of Scene 2 from ‘The Banshee’: A Chamber Opera in One Act (2017) by Daniel Daly. Screen capture: Gary Ferrington.

Yet given Daly’s background, Dr. Kyr’s suggestion made sense: he really cared about telling a good story, via creative writing in many genres, including fiction, poetry, and plays. And he had composed music for theatre since high school, with recent highlights at UO’s Hope Theatre and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

Now, three years later, the world premiere of Daly’s The Banshee will be performed at 3 pm Saturday, May 13, in the university’s Aasen-Hull Hall as part of the 2017 Music Today Festival hosted by the UO School of Music and Dance’s Oregon Composers Forum. But for Daly, overcoming his doubts and opera’s logistical challenges proved to be less challenging than facing his own darkness.

The drama Daly has created revolves around the legend of the Banshee, a character from Irish legend whose keening is a herald of death. For almost a year, he worked closely with Dr. Kyr on developing the 21-page libretto, “As I shared the developing narrative, Dr. Kyr recognized that it was an archetypal story — the stuff of myth — but that I wasn’t fully engaging with the characters,” he admits. “They were coming out filtered through my polite, eager-to-please, church-trained personality. I wasn’t facing the characters’ primal fears or desires, and the result was a shallow drama wherein some folks behaved badly occasionally but everything pretty much worked out in the end.”

“Dan, it’s good, but it’s a tea party,” Kyr told him about an early draft. “Opera is about the depths of the human experience.”

Caption: Composer Daniel Daly. Photo: Phillipe Lazaro.

Finally, after several more unsatisfying drafts, Daly wrote out a list of everything he secretly feared and desired. “I tried not to repress anything,” he remembers, “even if what was coming up was not something I wanted to see in myself. Next, I considered each character’s root in my own psyche, and asked which of my fears and desires belonged to them. When I did that, the drama exploded into a new life.”

From Darkness to Dawn

Performed by a chamber orchestra with minimal staging, the one-hour, one-act story meditates on the origins of the Banshee character through a story of his own inspired by archetypal characters: the Dark Feminine, the Nurturing Mother, the Wounded Warrior, and the Innocent. A witch (mezzo-soprano Sarah Brauer) striving to give speech to her mute daughter (dancer Olivia Oxholm), summons a man (baritone Dylan Bunten) to her forest lair to slay him in ritual sacrifice. The witch’s sister (soprano Alison Kaufman) interrupts by stealing the daughter away from her violent mother and warning the man. To preserve her power, the witch tries to put the forest forever under her rule, no matter the cost to her family.

The score evokes all these characters; it is occasionally driving, ecstatic, mournful, violent. Daly promises “disputes and incantations, a love scene and a death scene, lust, magic, and murder, innocence, despair, and healing, and at least one aria that will break your heart.”

Daly discusses rehearsal with conductor Andrés Rodriguez, cast, and pianist Andrew Pham. Photo: Phillipe Lazaro.

The Banshee is a captivating work that has emerged from (Daly’s) musical imagination as an intense journey of discovery, which ultimately leads to transcendence,” Kyr says.

The Banshee has also been a journey of discovery for its creator. Daly’s opera travels to a level of darkness that surprised even him. “For a long time I did not want to face these aspects of my psyche,” Daly admits. “But, with repeated encouragement from Dr. Kyr, I did, and the process has caused a huge growth in personal confidence, and I hope the audience will find the story as healing and liberating as I did. [The story] comes out of the darkness and into a glorious dawn. I think that’s the message people are desperate to hear in these times.”

Video preview:  “Scene 2” from the Banshee: A Chamber Opera in One Act (2017) by Daniel Daly with Alison Kaufman (soprano), Sarah Brauer (mezzo-soprano) Dylan Bunten (baritone) and Olivia Oxholm (dancer). Performed during the 2017 Music Today Festival’s Oregon Composers Forum concert IV on April 21. Video: UO School of Music and Dance.

The Music Today Festival presents Daniel Daly’s opera, The Banshee, at 3 pm Saturday, May 13, in Aasen-Hull Hall on the UO campus. Free admission. UO Event Calendar.

Gary Ferrington is a Senior Instructor Emeritus, Instructional Systems Technology, College of Education, University of Oregon. He is an advocate for new music and serves as project coordinator for Oregon ComposersWatch.

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