Monday 28 October 2013

Rough for Opera with Kate Whitley and Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour

Kate Whitley
Second Movement's Rough for Opera returned to the Cockpit Theatre for its second birthday, giving us the chance to see two new pieces, operas recently composed or still in development. Kate Whitley's In Flagrante was a one act opera lasting 30 minutes, with a libretto by Ian Burrows, which took the mythological characters of Orpheus and Bacchus, put them together to see what happened. Amir Mahyar Tafreshipour's The Doll Behind the Curtain is a work in development. Based on a short story by the Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat (1903 - 1951), the opera has a libretto by Dominic Power. We saw scenes from act one. After both performances we had a Q&A session with the artists to learn more about the background to the pieces.

Kate Whitley and Ian Burrows In Flagrante arose from the suggestion of Ian Christians who owns 'Orpheus and Bacchus Experiences'. As Ian Burrows pointed out at the Q&A, in fact Orpheus and Bacchus do not interact in mythology so he and Kate Whitley had to concoct their own story. The result was intended to provoke a discussion of the dichotomy between the Orphic attitude, beating yourself up in consequence of your actions, and Bacchus's divine inconsequence.

The action takes place after a night of revelry, Orpheus (Jorge Colorado) wakes up burning with desire, but cannot remember anything about the night before. Bacchus (Chrisopher Dollins) wakes up with Xantippe (Raphaela Papadakis), and sends Orpheus off to Hippocrates (Nicholas Simeha) for a cure. Mean while Bacchus discovers that Xantippe is more interested in Orpheus than him. Diotima (Maud Millar) wakes up and is peeved at Bacchus's lack of interest. On his visit to Hippocrates, Orpheus discovers that its not love he has, but gonorrhoea.

Whitley and Burrows give each character a solo moment so that we place each nicely. The twist in the plot starts when Hippocrates reveals to us his love of other people's secrets. Bacchus discovers that he too has gonorrhoea. Then when Hippocrates decides to get drunk, he too lets go and all five decide to damn the consequences.

Rosalind Parker's production was admirably flexible and balance the serious and comic elements of the plot rather nicely. All five cast members were admirable in their commitment to Whitley's music, singing off the book and giving strong, characterful performances. Whitley's music is complex but seems to sit gratefully and sympathetically for the voice. At the Q&A the cast talked about how the music on the page looked complex, but that when they learned it, it sat will with the voice and felt natural.

This certainly didn't feel like a scratch production, though it has to be admitted that making the English text fully comprehensible was a bit of a challenge for one or two of the non-English speaking cast. Whitley herself accompanied on the piano, working wonders but I would love to her it with instrumental accompaniment. This is certainly a piece which deserves a wider audience, though its length might make it tricky to place.

After the interval we were treated to scenes from Tafreshipour and Power's work in progress, The Doll Behind the Curtain. Tafreshipour was born in Iran, studied in Denmark and in London (at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama).  Sadegh Hedayat's short story concerns a young man who falls in love with a statue. Act one of the opera takes place in Le Havre, but in act two the action will move back to Iran where the young man takes the statue, with tragic consequences.

Oliver Brignall played the young man, whom we saw entranced by his vision of the statue and eventually buying it. David Jones was the young man's boss, and in a short scene they talked of Le Havre and of the young man's leaving. The statue was in a bric-a-brac shop owned by an old man, played by Andy Armistead with his grand-daughter (Barbara Walton). Walton also played the young man's off stage wife.

With a selection of scenes (20 minutes from a complete act lasting some twice that) it is difficult to get more than a flavour. Tafreshipour's style is complex, not always tonal and he writes in a challenging and sometimes awkward manner for the voice. In the scenes that we saw, the music felt high-tension and highly stressed, and it will be interesting to see how the work develops into a full scale piece.

Directed by Maya Sapone, the singers did admirably in their work and gave a strong impression of what the final result might be like. Tafreshipour had reduced the accompaniment down to a piano and harp (Mary Dullea and Ruby Aspinall), but at the Q&A he admitted that this was difficult and that the work relies on the orchestra; there were in fact significant instrumental interludes.

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