Katherine Manley performing in "The Hunger."Peter Ferry.

New Yorkers are going to get a new way of seeing the Great Irish Famine this weekend, when the opera-documentary production, “The Hunger,” comes to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Composed by Donnacha Dennehy in collaboration with the contemporary ensemble Alarm Will Sound, “The Hunger” is meant to get audience members to see the various causes of the famine and, as Dennehy explains, to realize how it still happens today.

“These things happen again,” he says. “They happen in Africa, they happen in some far off place. This examines the contemporary perspective of famine. There are questions of charity, inequality.”

“The Hunger” came into being when Alarm Will Sound approached Dennehy to write a new piece, and for it to be “something substantial.”

“I had wanted to write a piece on the famine for a long time,” Dennehy says. “They weren’t expecting an opera, so it was quite adventurous.”

Read more: Thousands of flowers to be planted at site of Irish famine graves on Staten Island

Being a composer, Dennehy created an opera which features Irish folk singer Iarla O’Lionaird and soprano Kate Manley. O’Lionaird plays the role of those silenced by the famine, singing sean-nos songs, including “The Black Potato,” which dates back to the famine. Manley is meant to be Asenath Nicholson, an American woman whose first-hand account, Annals of the Famine in Ireland, influenced “The Hunger”.

An aerial view of the stage setting of "The Hunger" at BAM.

An aerial view of the stage setting of "The Hunger" at BAM.

“I feel Donnacha has set these [songs] in places where the character Asenath Nicholson tries to communicate with the Irish and expresses herself differently,” says Manley.  

“She transforms from an observer into a participant,” Dennehy says of Manley’s role, while O’Lionaird’s songs are meant to be done “as a starving man would sing it.”

Manley is amazed by how O’Lionaird brought his character to life: “I listen in awe of how he remains true to the score, notation, and yet with the musicianship of an improvisational artist. It is such an individual color, so soul felt and honest. It's really wonderful to have two completely contrasting voices working and blending together.” 

But Dennehy felt there needed to be something else to express the political and economic side of the famine. That was where video interviews of noted famine experts and commentators, such as Noam Chomsky and Paul Krugman, come in. These interviews discuss both the Irish famine and similar famines today and how such famines have a lot to do with politics and economics rather than a simple shortage of food. The music is continuous while the videos cut through the singing.

“They are all around us,” Manley explains. “But they are blended in so smoothly with the score that it’s probably the orchestra that carries the musical relationship with the docu part. Of course hearing the docu- text, whilst in character fuels Asenath to continue her story with the audience. The docu voices help set the 'scene' or 'moment' up dramatically for Iarla and myself.”  

The avant-garde nature of this production caught the attention of Joe Melillo, the executive producer of the BAM’s Next Wave Festival, which showcases contemporary work from around the world. Having previously had Alarm Will Sound perform at the BAM, Melillo was familiar with their work and reputation.

To have “The Hunger” at the BAM is a delight for the Irish Arts Center, a cultural institution which helps develop and promote Irish-based arts. Executive Director Aidan Connolly believes a production about the Irish famine is vital to many New Yorkers, not to mention those of Irish descent.

“It's our history, for starters,” Connolly says. “This rendering takes us into it with great emotion and intellectual rigor.  And it’s a story that has repeated itself throughout history, with universal themes that can serve as a caution to us as we look around the world where the political dynamics of the Great Hunger are not obsolete.”   

Although Dennehy agrees that people of all backgrounds should see and learn from “The Hunger,” he understands the draw and impact it would have on Irish New Yorkers.

“It’s a subject that caused a wide wave of immigration,” he says. “But there’s an idea that it was caused by potato blight. If it was just a blight, it wouldn’t have happened. I hope people will find this fascinating.”

 “The Hunger” will be shown at the BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House on the evenings of Friday September 30 and Saturday October 1. Tickets start at $20, and the show runs 75 minutes.