An Irish project to break the record for the number of nationalities in a choir

Opera song

Along with cabin fever, anxiety, and homemade baking, vocals were one of the first themes of the lockdown last year. Do you remember those scenes from Italian balconies, when opera singers entertained their neighbors? Then there were the concert pianists who played jazz from pianos at home. Music matters. As conductor David Brophy also knows, it increases endorphins and connects people across communities and around the world.

Now Brophy is leading an Irish plan to break the world record for the number of different nationalities in a single choir next week. The venue is Expo 2020, a giant world fair currently underway in Dubai. The more discerning among you will notice the date, but the more forgiving will also realize that there really wasn’t much room for a giant World’s Fair in 2020, given the year in it. So, 12 months later, what is literally a global village landed in the UAE city on the Persian Gulf.

The Expo players in the Irish pavilion, left to right, Jos Kelly, Ted Kelly, Julia Spanu, Joss Sampson, Darren Roche and Richard Delahunty

One of the reasons for Riverdance’s success is the way it internationalized Irish music.

Described by one witty insider as “the plowing championships of international diplomacy,” Expo 2020 sees 192 countries in national pavilions doing their best to spread awareness of their culture, promote international business and commerce, and speak out. sustainability and climate change; the latter, perhaps, to allay their anxieties at the prospect of flying in large numbers to participate in events like these.

The Irish pavilion makes a little reference to the design of Michael Scott for the same concert, in 1939 at the World’s Fair in New York. This time, a team from the Office of Public Works (OPW), led by Ciarán O’Connor and Ger Harvey, created a building that also apparently includes “an exploration of the Neolithic passage tombs of Ireland”. It was widely believed to be a resounding success, not least because an updated version of Riverdance wowed new audiences in the Middle East.

Aerial view of Expo 2020 Dubai.  Photography: Dany Eid

Aerial view of Expo 2020 Dubai. Photography: Dany Eid

One of the reasons for Riverdance’s success is the way it internationalized Irish music, mixing it with international notes to create what was, perhaps, a metaphor for the diaspora. Now he’s joined by a new business (and branding opportunity): The Irish Songbook. Niall Stokes and Gary Sheehan of the National Concert Hall together selected 55 songs from the Irish catalog. These are performed (and reinterpreted) by an ensemble of musicians known as the Expo Players, at the pavilion during the six months of the event. There will also be an album, launched, of course, on St. Patrick’s Day.

Ranging from One of U2 to Sing it Back! by Moloko, the songs will also be performed by this record-breaking choir. I find David Brophy somewhere between Mo Ghile Mear and Mná na h Éireann. With less than two weeks to go, he’s been going all out, arranging the songs for what is essentially four backing vocals.

There is, he explains, a core of soloists: “I hope to have Tolü Makay, Iarla Ó Lionáird, Dana Masters and Jerry Fish”, then an Irish professional eight-part choir, plus another larger choir composed mainly (but not exclusively) Irish expats, rehearsing in Dubai; and last but not least, up to 1,000 people from as many countries around the world as the team can bring together.

Riverdance at Expo 2020

Riverdance at Expo 2020

At the time of writing, 77 countries have signed up. A total of 109 are needed to break the record. But “where better,” Brophy asks, “to break it but Expo?” I imagine Irish Boy Scouts swinging in the pavilions of countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zambia, Burkina Faso, Djibouti and Fiji, encouraging them to send a singer or two. (Austria and Greece are also surprisingly recalcitrant – you’d think after all the years of Eurovision they’d be up for the challenge.)

Apparently that’s exactly what’s happening, and database officials say you can see where they stand as new registrations come in. “It’s also one of my tasks when I go out,” Brophy explains, to the thought. “Walk around with a clipboard and walk into the pavilions and say, ‘Hello, we don’t have anyone from Lithuania yet. “”

David Brophy with the Unsung Heroes concert at the National Opera House in Wexford on June 21, 2019. Photo: Ger Lawlor Photography

David Brophy with the Unsung Heroes concert at the National Opera House in Wexford on June 21, 2019. Photo: Ger Lawlor Photography

Even if you don’t sing the right notes or the right pitch, you are still singing. And when you sing your body releases oxytocin and endorphins

What, I wonder, thinking only of me, if you can’t sing? I have cold memories of being told to move my lips at school and not to make noise. It turns out that is Brophy’s passion. “Anyone can sing,” he said. “Even if you don’t sing the right notes or the right pitch, you are still singing. And when you sing, your body releases oxytocin and endorphins.

“Research shows that after half an hour of group singing, your impulses start to align. You are all breathing at the same time. The air we use for singing regulates your heart.

Brophy says that filming the documentary The High Hopes Choir (2014), which featured homeless people and those who work with them, caused him to rethink his attitude towards music. “I was interested in the healing potential of songs and singing,” he recalls. “And I learned everything I know about singing from them.

“I’m from Santry, which is not a hotbed of classical talent or conducting. I can’t do the po-face stuff at all, ”adds the principal conductor of the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. Instead, he says, he often longs for a younger self that doesn’t have all the baggage of some type of musical education. “I can tap into it when I’m singing with people who have it.”

There is, he says, a pent-up need among people to come together and sing, and Dubai is the place for it. “We can do it outside, we can be safely distant. We are guaranteed good weather.

Music did a lot to make the separation more bearable. It can also be a great way to reconnect, and Brophy is a brilliant champion. “I feel like I’m around the corner, with eighth notes in my back pocket, saying ‘do you want some?’ When you get that hit seeing people singing for the first time, it’s amazing. It should be prescribed.

The Expo World Choir takes place on December 9. See ireland.ie/expo


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