Friday 9 August 2013

Tête à Tête Opera Festival at the Riverside Studios

Fossils and Monsters  Photo Credit – Claire Shovelton
Alison Wells in Fossils and Monsters
Photo Credit – Claire Shovelton
The Opera Festival organised by Tête à Tête at the Riverside Studios is now in its seventh year. Running over three weeks from the 1st to the 18th August this festival showcases brand new, short, operas, from which the audience can pick and choose. Each show is about 40 minutes to an hour long, while ‘Light Bites’, at only five minutes long, entertain the audience in-between the main events, as well as being performed at Fulham Palace and in parks and squares around Hammersmith.

Last night (Thursday 9th August) I saw Fossils and Monsters, The Garden, and Vivienne. Short, however, does not mean that these operas are somehow lesser than grand classical operas. Like a good short story they get straight to the point. Character development is as strong as the emotional intelligence delivered by the performers.

Fossils and Monsters compares the lives of two extraordinary women living at a time of great scientific discovery and theorising about the nature of life and creation (some years prior to Charles Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’). Mary Anning was a fossil hunter who found the first ichthyosaur in the unstable Blue Lias rocks at Lyme Regis. Both Mary and the ichthyosaur are childhood memories of mine but, as anyone who has seen Horrible Histories knows, Mary Anning’s life was not equal to her scientific talent – male scientists who came to her for help in identifying fossils took credit for her work.

Judith Bingham (1952 -) has given Mary Anning, performed by Alison Wells, a voice. This work was accompanied by only Alison herself, humming, walking across a box of pebbles or hitting two pebbles together. The stage setting was equally minimalist with a backdrop of a beach projected onto a screen. The performance was very engaging - in ten minutes we can understand exactly how Mary thought and might have felt about her life and about life itself. Irony and humour lift the desolation of her poverty.

Mary Shelley was brought to life by Colin Riley (1963 -) in Science Fictions. Similarly to Mary Anning this aria recounts the life of Mary Shelly as understood by Mary herself. Colin Riley has provided a recorded accompaniment with elements of eastern music and western jazz, while Alison was mesmerising as a tortured woman, unable to sleep and in mourning, discussing the nature of life and her wish to make the dead live once more as she could in fiction.

Framing these arias were two short works for clarinet. The first duet, Fanfares, by Christopher Hobbs (1950 -), who is a pioneer of systemic music (where the music is predetermined by a mathematical function – much in the same way as a fractal pattern evolves), was played off stage on Eb clarinet by Ian Mitchell and Catriona Scott. The three movements are oddly haunting – setting the mood for the gothic discussions to follow.

Essay by William O Smith (1926 -) links everything together. Firstly Ian played alone on stage with Catriona extending lines or echoing and supporting phrases, sometimes taking the lead. After a while she joined Ian on the stage and their performance was enhanced by shouting, stamping and extended techniques including playing double notes – resulting in a strange sound something like an eerie accordion.

The Garden music by John Harris (1070 -), words by Zinne Harris was in a secret venue. Meeting at the appropriate time in the lobby we were led by a flight attendant through the neighbouring estate – but I won’t spoil it in case you are planning to go tonight! Set in a society where humans have outgrown our ability to house ourselves and where global warming is more explicitly evident than today, The Garden explores love and ordinary madness.

Even before the play began there was a single tone, reminiscent of the sound of strip light, adding to the feeling of poverty and industrialisation/ impersonalisation of humanity. The performers Alan McHugh and Pauline Knowles were perfect as a couple on the edge. Sometimes speaking, sometimes singing, to a backdrop of synthesised music provided by the composer himself. As the emotional intensity on the stage increased so did the involvement of the accompaniment, sometimes supporting, sometimes interacting, with the actors.

Clare McCaldin in Vivienne
Photo Credit – Claire Shovelton
The story of Vivienne, the final of the three sets I saw, was a retelling of the life of Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot by Stephen McNeff (1951 -) and Andy Rashliegh. Accompanied only by the piano (played by Libby Burgess) this performance by Clare McCaldin was captivating. Vivienne’s meeting and seduction of TS Eliot, the sexually unfulfilling marriage and subsequent affair with ‘Bernie’ Russell, followed by increasing mental instability, are shown in detail as she compares her life to that of Virginia Wolfe and Daisy Miller. Again perfectly timed moments of humour lift the loneliness and despair.

Definitely accessible, all four of the mini-operas I saw were beautifully crafted and a pleasure to watch. If this is the standard of the entire festival it is definitely worth going to. Whether you go to one as an opera ‘taster’ or squeeze in an evening marathon like I did – there is still just over a week left to enjoy.

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