Monday 25 March 2013

A truly absorbing evening - Rough for Opera

Last night (25 March) we attended Second Movement's Rough for Opera, their scratch night for new opera at the Cockpit Theatre. At these events, new opera is present as work in progress with fragments of new works and complete works in progress. After the performance there is then a chance to participate in a discussion about the new piece; a frankly scary moment for the poor composer who might have heard their work performed in public for the first time, but a usefully illuminating one. For those not interested in sounding off in public, there are feed back forms too. We heard the first scene from Mike Christie's The Miller's Wife and Scars by Kate Whitley, with Q&A's led by Professor Paul Barker from the Central School of Speech and Drama.

Mike Christie studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama. He has written both the words and the music for The Miller's Wife, a full length opera which will be premiered in August at the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre. The first scene was presented, with Alexander Evans, Lindsay Bramley, Stella Woodman and Catherine Sagar with Benjamin Holder on piano, directed by Matthew Gould. The plot is something of a 19th century melodrama, based on an idea Christie generated from discoveries about his own family. Christie's style is lyrical and melodic, in many ways quite conservative. Having seen the first scene, it will be interesting to see how the completed work develops. There was a very lively discussion afterwards, covering both the style of the music, the plot and what happens in the rest of the opera, the text and approaches to libretto writing and many more topics.

By contrast, Kate Whitley's Scars, based on a text by Stephanie Ndoungo, is a complete work in itself lasting just 12 minutes. Ndoungo wrote as part of Freedom From Torture's creating writing group 'Write To Life'. Her text is based on her real life experences of having a medical examination of the scars on her body to support her case for asylum. Whitley has made a selection from Ndoungo's text, creating a highly effective, compressed work.

Whitley has set the piece for soprano plus an ensemble of percussion (Jude Carlton), viola (Jenny Coombes), bass clarinet (Michael Pearce) and piano (Whitley herself), conducted by Christopher Stark. The original soprano was unable to perform and her replacement, Raphaela Papadakis, learned the part in 3 days. Whitley writes quite lyrically for the voice, except at key moments of stress, and then uses the instruments to make rather harsh, dissonant comments. The subject of the text is quite difficult, extreme almost and Whitley ensures that we experience it from the protagonist's point of view, rather than being a simple harsh description of a harrowing event.

The work was an indicator of a highly impressive talent, Whitley had taken a rather difficult subject and created something magical and rather profound, disturbing without feeling voyeuristic. There was a lot of discussion afterwards about the subject matter, how it should be treated, whether the work was complete and how it should be staged.

What was amazing about the event was how, after both operas, a very lively discussion ensued which seemed to cover the very essence of what contemporary opera is or isn't, could be or shouldn't be. A truly absorbing evening.

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