Saturday, 25 February 2017

Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stage Festival 2017

Various Stages Festival
For its third Various Stages Festival at the ICA on Friday 24 February 2017, Mahogany Opera Group presented six different works in different stages of development. We generally heard a short extract from the work, followed by a discussion between creators and audience to provide feedback. The six works presented were The Finding (music by Richard Melkonian, words by Zoe Palmer), Palace of Junk (music by Oliver Brignall, words by Poppy Burton-Morgan), In a Grove (music by Christopher Cerrone, words by Stephanie Fleischmann), Mu'a (music Dai Fujikura and concept/choreographer/director Dam Van Huynh), Traffick (music by Emma-Ruth Richards, words Nic Chalmers), The Collected Works of Billy the Kid (music Gavin Bryars, words Jean Lacornerie).

Audience and chorus at Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages
Audience and chorus at
Mahogany Opera Group's Various Stages
The Finding, music by Richard Melkonian, words by Zoe Palmer, was directed by Lucy Bradley and featured Elizabeth Laurence (mezzo-soprano), Laurens Price-Nowak (cello), Richard Melkonian (piano and electronics) and a choir of women and babies. The piece examines the many thousands of people who disappeared in Argentina in the 1970s from the point of view of a single desperate grandmother looking for her family. Melkonan's music combined mezzo-soprano with amplified cello, piano and electronics in a striking mix. A highly dramatic work, the chorus of women and babies, representing the disappeared, did rather steal the show somewhat.

Palace of Junk, music by Oliver Brignall, words by Poppy Burton-Morgan (who also directed) was presented by Metta Theatre with Peter Brathaite (baritone), Richard Burkhard (baritone) and the Riot Ensemble (trombone, accordion, cello, violin, percussion and electronics). We heard a single scene from a longer opera about a real life pair of brothers in the 1940s who hoarded to such an extent (12 pianos!) that they eventually died in the house. The final product will use video extensively, and we were given a taster with video projections during the scene. It proved a very powerful and imaginative work, particularly the sound world with its use of found-objects for percussion. The company is hoping to ultimately create a production which is immersive, and the electronics used in the performance were all reactive.

In a Grove, music by Christopher Cerrone, words by Stehanie Fleischmann, was directed by Brian Mertes, with Richard Burkhard (baritone), Abigail Kelly (soprano), Christopher Lemmings (tenor), Tom Verney (counter-tenor), the Riot Ensemble (vibraphone and percussion) and Christopher Cerrone (electronics). We saw a single scene from a larger work which is still in development, the opera is based on Ryunosuke Akutagawa's short story In a Grove (1922) in which multiple characters tell the story of the same murder from their own point of view. The music we heard was completely mesmeric, with a beautifully calm hypnotic quality. 


Mu'a is a collaboration between composer Dai Fujikura and choreographer/director Dam Van Huynh, who came up with the concept. Mu'a is based in the Vietnamese tradition of water puppetry (Dam Van Huynh is Vietnamese) so we did not see the piece live, but saw a video. All took place in a pool filled with water where Elaine Mitchener (voice), Tommaso Petrolo (dancer) and Oliver James Hymans (puppetry) performed. The action combined the live presences of Mitchener and Petrolo with puppets, notably an old woman and a dragon. The music came from Mitchener and Petrolo's voices, and their actions in the water, as well as the clinking of china cups (a sound which both Dai Fujikura, who is Japanese, and Dam Van Huynh found evocative of their childhoods). The characters in the story took on multiple presences, singer, dancer and puppet, and the result was highly intriguing.

Traffik music by Emma-Ruth Richards, words Nic Chalmers, was directed by Sarah Tipple with Richard Burkhard (baritone), Daire Halpen (mezzo-soprano), Kate Howden (soprano), Abigail Kelly (soprano), Lucy Schaufer (mezzo-soprano), Tom Verney (counter-tenor), Peter Davies (piano), Jonathan Berman (conductor). We heard one short scene from a far longer piece, which will eventually have an accompaniment of an ensemble of around 11 players. The opera deals with the tricky subject of sex trafficking, looking at a group of people who have been rescued and taken to a safe house. Nic Chalmers' libretto used various devices, including a chorus, to evoke the sense of dissociation which people in profoundly stressful situations feel. A striking and complex work, the performers were admirable in the way they brought the piece out of a short rehearsal period.

The final event was another film, this time a scene from Gavin Bryars The Collected Works of Billy the Kid which sets a libretto by Jean Lacornerie based on Michael Ondaatje's book of the same name, music by Gavin Bryars. The piece is being presented next year at Lyon Opera in a double bill with Ben Johnson's Calamity Jane to her Daughter under the collective title of Calamity/Billy. We saw the film of a single scene, performed by Claron McFadden (soprano) and Les Percussions Claviers de Lyon, music director Gerard Leconte.

It was a long afternoon, 2pm to 7pm with an hour's interval, and we could perhaps have done with one fewer presentations, certainly the audience had diminished somewhat by the end. But it was a remarkable event, showing the creative diversity of contemporary opera, challenging us to think about what opera today is, and along the way evincing a fascinating for combining acoustic voices with electronics.
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