Friday, 17 August 2018

Out of the mouths of babes: Metta Theatre at The Place

Oliver Brignall: I Do Need Me - William Morgan, Nathan Gregory - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Oliver Brignall: I Do Need Me - William Morgan, Nathan Gregory -
Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Oliver Brignall I Do Need Me, Laura Bowler I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown; William Morgan, Alexandra Bork, Nathan Gregory, dir: Poppy Burton-Morgan, Metta Theatre; Tête à Tête at The Place  
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 16 August 2018 Star rating: 3.0 (★★★)
The verbatim words of children form the basis for this pair of challenging contemporary works for singer and percussion

When children are depicted in opera it is usually via words and dramatic situations created by adults (Benjamin Britten & Mfanwy Piper creating Miles & Flora in Turn of the Screw, Engelbert Humperdinck & Adelheid Wette creating Hansel & Gretel). In Metta Theatre's double bill presented at The Place on 16 August 2018 as part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival the intriguing conceit was to have the words taken directly from the mouths of babes.

The company presented a pair of operas, each used a libretto by Poppy Burton-Morgan (artistic director of Metta Theatre and director of both shows) based on verbatim text from children. Each opera used a single singer and a percussionist, but a different composer. The result was an evening which provided an intriguing and creative disjunct between character and execution, were these adults behaving badly or were they adults depicting children, or something of both.

Laura Bowler: I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown - Alexandra Bork, Nathan Gregory - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Laura Bowler: I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown - Alexandra Bork, Nathan Gregory
Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Now, I have to admit upfront that I do not respond well to children, and do not find them automatically delightful and funny. There were funny moments in both operas, but I noticed that other members of the audience found things far more amusing than I, one woman laughed repeatedly throughout both operas. So, my slightly cool reaction to the pieces might partly be a reaction to the subject matter.


First we heard I Do Need Me, with music by Oliver Brignall and text by Poppy Burton-Morgan performed by tenor William Morgan and percussionist Nathan Gregory. Then there was I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown, with music by Laura Bowler and text by Poppy Burton-Morgan performed by soprano Alexandra Bork and percussionist Nathan Gregory.


Oliver Brignall: I Do Need Me - Nathan Gregory - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Oliver Brignall: I Do Need Me - Nathan Gregory - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
I Do Need Me gave us an intriguing dramatic scenario. Who were these two men entering the stage, the set was minimal just the extensive percussion set up and a table full of children's toys. The relationship between the men, dramatic and challenging, started before the music and as the opera progressed you sense an element of challenge between tenor William Morgan and percussionist Nathan Gregory. Morgan, bearded and quite clearly an adult male, might be a representing a child but could just as easily be a bad tempered man-child. Whilst Gregory, watching Morgan like a hawk, could have been a parent but just as easily the watching was necessary to pick up the necessary visual clues for musical co-ordination without an conductor.

Oliver Brignall's imaginative score set the text as dramatic recitative, without any sense of childishness and the drama moved from the magical (the opening and closing marvelling at the stars) to real tantrums. William Morgan didn't just sing, he had a range of children's toys to play with and these toys formed instruments in their own right. Nathan Gregory's contribution was not so much accompaniment as commentary and colour, Brignall's score used the full panolply of percussion sounds to create a series of dazzling textures. And there were some lovely moments when the two performers seemed to be having a duel.

Morgan still used a score,  but this hardly impeded his performance and the results were a tour de force. My main quibble was that words were easily lost, we were sitting on the third row and it was often impossible to make out complete phrases. As Poppy Burton-Morgan's libretto is full of childish non sequiturs this made comprehensibility a problem. Whilst it is easy enough to lay the blame on the performers in such cases, I think that in this case some of the problem was Brignall's music which was dramatically conceived rather than worrying about comprehensibility.

Laura Bowler: I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown - Alexandra Bork, Nathan Gregory - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Laura Bowler: I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown - Alexandra Bork, Nathan Gregory
Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
The second opera I'm Not A Bit Like A Clown was more developed in terms of its staging. Here Alexandra Bork was clearly a child (the text is based on words from a four-year-old), there was little sense of her being an adult woman. Whereas William Morgan's body language was that of an adult man, Alexandra Bork's was admirably close to a four-year-old's. And the set up was more elaborate than the earlier opera, with the stage strewn with toys for Burk to play with (and also her music carefully strewn about the stage). And not just Bork, Nathan Gregory's percussion set up expanded to include a toy piano and other such items.

There was little sense of disjunct here, we were being asked to suspend disbelief and watch a child play, starting from waking her parent up at an ungodly hour, with Nathan Gregory in the role of parent. This relationship was clearly articulated, with Gregory's accompaniment often taking the form of play with the child, and at one point the child is allowed to put make up on the parent. I can think of few pieces where the percussion part involves having your face painted bright pink with lurid lipstick!

Bowler's music used much more of a sense of repetition, with both text and accompaniment setting up regular repetitive patterns. Bowler's writing for the percussion seemed very much inspired by the idea of the parent, with the percussion line standing in for words said, gestures made and play actions. The sense of repetition, the sparseness of Bowler's writing and the more intimate way she set the music meant that comprehensibility was rather less of an issue.

Oliver Brignall: I Do Need Me - William Morgan - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
Oliver Brignall: I Do Need Me - William Morgan - Metta Theatre at Tête à Tête (Photo Claire Shovelton)
It might have seemed a good idea to pair these two operas, in terms of set-up they fit well together. But, quite frankly, I am not sure that I want to spend an entire evening of 90 minutes in the company of a toddler and by the end of the evening I began to tire. I think that each opera would work better on its own, in a mixed double bill. That said, the performances were all real tour de force. Both William Morgan and Alexandra Bork brilliantly encapsulated their childish characters, and sang challenging music in a brilliant manner. But it is percussionist Nathan Gregory who deserves the real crown, negotiating a pair of complex percussion setups, controlling and suggesting the direction of the music and interacting in a way which added a real character to the piece.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • if there were water - Two different, yet challenging contemporary choral pieces in this striking disc from the American choir, The Crossing (★★★★) - CD review
  • Bayreuth’s new production of Lohengrin has taken the Green Hill by storm (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Exploring advanced techniques: flautist Sara Minelli's New Resonances (★★★)   - CD review
  • Leaving on a high: final revival of Jan Philipp Gloger's production of Wagner’s Der fliegende Holländer at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★)  - Opera review
  • Prom 42: the first Estonian orchestra at the Proms - Paavo Järvi and the Estonian Festival Orchestra (★★★★½)  - concert review
  • A strong message on anti-semitism: Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg at the Bayreuth Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Edward Lambert's new Lorca-inspired chamber opera at Tête à Tête (★★½)  - Opera review
  • Still relevant & still controversial: Alex Mills' Dear Marie Stopes at the Wellcome Collection (★★★★½)  - Opera review
  • Politics, music and tonality: Keith Burstein and The Prometheus Revolution - interview
  • Small scale challenge: studio performance of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor from Fulham Opera (★★★½)  - opera review
  • Calen-O: songs from the North of Ireland from Carolyn Dobbin & Iain Burnside (★★★★½) - CD review
  • Prom 34: rare Barber & Copland in Juanjo Mena's leave-taking at the BBC Proms (★★★★) - concert review
  • Musical memoir: Tom Smail's Blue Electric at Tête à Tête  (★★★) - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a comment

Popular Posts this month