Cincinnati Opera brings McCartney’s gritty ‘Liverpool Oratorio’ to life

The CD sat on Chris Milligan’s shelf for more than 30 years.

Milligan, Cincinnati Opera’s general director and CEO, hadn’t thought about it for ages. Then, one of the opera’s board members asked what he thought would be the company’s next “Another Brick in the Wall.” Remember that? The 2018 Pink Floyd-inspired opera that set attendance records?

Later, Milligan and opera artistic director Evans Mirageas tossed around several possible titles, works that would be artistically intriguing and would have an appeal that went far beyond the traditional opera audience.

“I pulled together a number of titles,” Milligan recalled. “One of them was that CD – Paul McCartney’s ‘Liverpool Oratorio.’ ”

Sir Paul McCartney, composer of "Liverpool Oratorio"
Sir Paul McCartney, composer of “Liverpool Oratorio”

Mirageas knew of the work. But he wasn’t particularly familiar with it.

“I was skeptical,” Mirageas admitted. “I love the Beatles. I grew up buying their 45s – they were 98 cents each. And I love McCartney and (John) Lennon. They’re like the Gershwins. But I wasn’t certain about the appeal of ‘Liverpool Oratorio.’ ”

Why hadn’t it already been turned into a stagework? If it had been a viable work, you would think other opera companies would have snatched it up. The music is Paul McCartney, after all – one of the great tunesmiths of the 20th century. And with the McCartney name attached, it would be certain to have great audience appeal.

But somehow, in the 33 years since the piece premiered as part of the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic’s 150th anniversary, it never happened.

Then, Mirageas listened to it. Afterward, he decided to order the score. And finally, “I realized ‘my gosh, this could actually work,’ ” Mirageas said.

Challenges of everyday life

The “Oratorio” is a semi-autobiographical piece. Written in eight lengthy movements, it begins in Liverpool in 1942, with the birth of a baby nicknamed Shanty. That is the same year McCartney was born in Liverpool.

But this is not a tale about the Beatles. Or about McCartney’s music career. Rather, it charts a childhood and misadventures in school, the death of a parent, the explorations of young love, the tribulations of work and of navigating marriage. In short, it’s about the stuff of life. Not a privileged life like the one McCartney would grow into. Instead, it’s about the mundane complications of everyday life.

Cincinnati Opera's Evans Mirageas and "Liverpool Oratorio" orchestrator, the late Carl Davis
Cincinnati Opera’s Evans Mirageas and “Liverpool Oratorio” orchestrator, the late Carl Davis

“It’s such an accessible piece,” Milligan said. “It deals with big themes, but it explores it in very intimate, very specific ways. It seems to say that things can be grim and disorienting, that bad things happen. And that sometimes they heal. Sometimes they don’t. But we get through life by helping one another and holding one another up. That’s the power of this piece. I think that’s what makes it so relevant today. We need those same things.”

Truthfully, these are themes that were just as germane in any of the times since McCartney collaborated with the late composer Carl Davis to flesh out and orchestrate the work.

But that raises the question. Why didn’t anyone step up to do it? Why wasn’t it snatched up by an English opera company? I mean, this is a major work by a major English composer.

“I think there is a bit of snobbery involved,” Mirageas said. “It’s Paul McCartney, you know, so it must just be pop tunes.”

A singular sense of place

Mirageas was very selective as he cobbled together a creative team to bring the piece to the stage. After all, “Liverpool Oratorio” is not your run-of-the-mill work. It’s not about royalty or people from the privileged class. It’s not about people who lived 200 years ago.

Perhaps the most significant quality that sets it apart is that it is not set in London, the metropolis that tends to define the country to most people who do not live there.

“I’m a real proud Lancashire lass,” said stage director Caroline Clegg, referring to the region in northwest England where Liverpool is located. “Liverpool is a completely different place from London. Or from East Anglia or any other part of England. I think Paul captured that perfectly in the ‘Oratorio.’ It has an authenticity and grit to it that is singularly Liverpool. And a Liverpudlian sense of humor, too.”

Much of the work that Clegg creates is site-specific theater, where capturing a palpable sense of place is central to the artistic product. 

Even though “Liverpool Oratorio” will take place in the formal confines of Music Hall’s Springer Auditorium, with nearly 2,500 seats, Clegg is determined to bring that same rough sense of authenticity to this production.

For example, for Clegg, it isn’t good enough to have crowd scenes populated by people in period costumes.

“On the first day of rehearsal, each member of the chorus will get a card detailing a backstory,” Clegg said. “Their name, who they’re married to, where they work and all sorts of details about their daily lives. This has to feel like a community of people who know each other. It’s wartime, so they share a sense of danger and fear and jeopardy. That will make everything going on around them on the stage feel much more real.”

‘Personality’ of Liverpool

Set designer Leslie Travers is equally committed to creating a powerful sense of place on the stage. And like Clegg, he feels a profound connection to Liverpool.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, I set up my life in Northern Ireland,” said Travers. “I intended to be there for two weeks, but I ended up being there for three years.”

He did have to make occasional trips to London, though. And rather than subject himself to the confines of a plane, he started to take the night ferry to Liverpool and hop a train to London from there. Soon, he began stopping over in Liverpool for a day or two. Or longer.

“It’s a place I’ve always had a deep affection for,” Travers said, adding that, “I grew up loving the Beatles. That’s the place their music was born and everywhere you go, you find references to their music in the structure of the city.”

He soon found himself stopping regularly in the pub frequented by John Lennon. And visiting the school McCartney writes about in “Liverpool Oratorio.” 

“I walked the city and listened to the music,” Travers said. “Often, I’d listen to ‘Liverpool Oratorio’ because so much of the Liverpool you see today is in Paul’s music. You can still see the ravages of (World War II) and the Blitz. Liverpool has become a personality in my life. So when it was first suggested to me that they were thinking about this piece I realized that what I had been doing all those many months was researching this work with an open heart and open mind.”

For Milligan, doing this work became a no-brainer.

“Some companies might think of themselves in a way that would preclude a project like this,” he said. “But our goal is to show the industry the virtue of this piece and to bring it to the stage. And then to invite others to do the same.”

Several performances are already sold out and the company has added at least one more (July 25, see below).

For Milligan, the marketing lessons learned when they staged “Another Brick in the Wall” continue to resonate.

“Fifty percent of our audience for that production was new to opera,” said Milligan. “A work like this gives us the opportunity to introduce new people to opera and how exciting it can be. Why would we not do it?”

Cincinnati Opera

Cincinnati Opera 2024 Summer Festival

  • June 13 & 15, 7:30 p.m. Mozart: “Don Giovanni”
  • June 18, 8 p.m. Studio Sessions: Jacqueline Echols McCarley (Wilks Studio)
  • June 27-28, 7:30 p.m. & June 30, 3 p.m. Verdi: “La Traviata”
  • July 2, 8 p.m. Studio Sessions: Elliot Madore (Wilks Studio)
  • July 11, 8 p.m. Studio Sessions: Jessica Rivera (Wilks Studio)
  • July 18, 20 & 25, 7:30 p.m. and July 21 & 27, 3 p.m. Paul McCartney: “Liverpool Oratorio”

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