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Vampirella: New Life in Old Stories by Katy Hayes

Writing.ie | Magazine | The Big Idea
Katy Hayes - libretto

By Katy Hayes

The 25th anniversary of Angela Carter’s death passed last month. The English writer died at the age of 51, leaving behind a unique body of work; her use of language is ornate, challenging, experimental; her creation of story is inventive; her concept of gender is still radical.

Carter was a feminist who often got on the wrong side of feminists. Her bad young women and provocative old girls strut their stuff in mini-skirts, all legs and lipstick and long hair. They are utterly feminine and utterly strong. There was not a victim’s bone in the body of her imagination. Her writing reflected a glorious womanly self-possession born of turning twenty in 1960 and feeling the wind of the ’68 revolution at her back.

Three decades ago, I was a young college student, and had published my first two short stories in In Dublin magazine and in New Irish Writing (at that time in The Sunday Tribune). I was on the hunt for writerly role models who could tell me that my dreams were not pipe-dreams. Angela Carter became one of my heroes. I was never stylistically influenced by her work (sub-Angela Carter is not a good look for any writer), but her creative/intellectual engagement with the world as a woman shone like a beacon to my youth and ambition. She saw femininity not as a liability but as a weapon. Who else could co-opt the Marquis de Sade to a feminist agenda? Her books were both brilliant and hilarious. Was there a better voice for a young Irishwoman to hear in the mid 1980s? This was a time when marital rape was perfectly legal in this country. Fifteen year-old Ann Lovett was found dead in a graveyard, having given birth following a secret pregnancy. This was the Ireland of the Kerry Babies case. The thought of a female president seemed like somebody else’s pipe-dream.

Carter became a well-known name in Ireland following Neil Jordan’s successful, career-making 1984 horror film The Company of Wolves, co-written with her and based on her radio play. It is a gloriously cinematic representation of Carter’s intellectual furniture: a brave minxish virgin girl; a complicated granny; an ambiguous wolf-man, whose hairiness masks his vulnerability. It felt, for a time, that feminist creativity was entering the main stream.

My own path (through the woods) led to my working as a theatre director. I adapted and directed Vampirella and the Company of Wolves as a theatre production in the mid 1990s at the Project Arts Centre, for Glasshouse Productions, the feminist theatre company where I was resident director. Alongside the wolfish virgin girl, Little Red Riding Hood, we now had a virgin boy, Hero, about to be sacrificed on the altar of erotic vampirism.

Out of the blue, two years ago, composer Siobhán Cleary invited me to work on a libretto for a new opera based on Vampirella. I sought samples of Siobhán’s music to get a sense of her sound, easy now on the internet, and we met. Cleary is like a Carter heroine, trailing music and ideas and intellectual energy. And what better thing to do than to carve Carter’s baroque prose into the soaring emotional highs of opera? Opera has always presented strong women characters – the music demandsmeaty roles for women’s voices.

This year I taught Wise Children, Carter’s funny and clever final novel, on the MA Programme in Creative Writing in UCD. In this task I was aided by Edmund Gordon’s recent biography The Invention of Angela Carter and this has brought a great deal of illumination to her posthumous presence. Like the gently-treated vampires you are about to witness on stage, Carter enjoys a significant afterlife. Like the dreaded vampires, her work has an ageless quality. Long live Angela Carter!

(c) Katy Hayes

The World Première of new Irish Opera, Vampirella, by composer Siobhán Cleary with libretto by Katy Hayes is on 21st-25th March at Smock Alley Theatre, Dublin.

Presented by the Royal Irish Academy of Music in collaboration with The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College Dublin.

Directed by Conor Hanratty and conducted by Andrew Synott.

This spring the Royal Irish Academy of Musicpresents the world première of a new chamber opera, Vampirella, by Irish composer Siobhán Cleary, inspired by a short story by Angela Carter. Presented in partnership between the Royal Irish Academy of Music and The Lir National Academy of Dramatic Art at Trinity College, performances will take place in Smock Alley Theatre 21st-25thMarch.

Tickets available here.

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