Wednesday 22 January 2014

What is an Opera?

What is an opera? Last night at Second Movement's Rough for Opera at the Cock Pit Theatre we were presented with three highly contrasting works which challenged our perceptions of what an opera might be. Edward Henderson and Lavinia Murray's Manspangled used a spoken text delivered by an actor accompanied by chorus which involved combs, bubble-wrap and blowing bubbles. Alex Groves's Hunger was a dance drama based on the Suffragettes in which the choreography and drama had been devised before the music was written. David Merriman's Strange Exiles was the most conventionally operatic but his subject matter, the Lavender Menace scare in Washington in the 1950's required him to address the material in novel ways. All three were confidently dramatic in their way and we testament to the current liveliness of contemporary music theatre.

Presented by Bastard Assignments, Manspangled had a text by Lavinia Murray and music by Edward Henderson the piece was directed by Barbara Wojtczak with Nick Haverson as the Man. The piece started from nothing, simply eight people in a half circle. The sounds were almost inaudible, just the clicking of combs. This was combined with the cellist doing a series of endless glissandi and random notes from the saxophone. During the piece the chorus of combs changed to first blowing bubbles, then to manipulating bubblewrap and finally returned to combs.

Starting from a position in the audience, Nick Haverson's delivery of Murray's text was dazzling. Murray's writing was full of glorious images and richly allusive, a stream of conciousness which never quite makes sense. It was also very funny. The result was at times mesmerising and dramatically entrancing. But I have to confess that the opening, where we sat listening to people clicking combs, was to me like watching paint dry but that others in the audience found it a 'spellbinding experience'.

David Merriman has written both the music and the words to Strange Exiles. The piece started out as his MA Thesis and we were presented with three dramatic scenes which he described as being sketches for a bigger work. The piece looked at the way gay people in the USA were treated with incredible hostility and suspicion during the Cold War, at a time when gay rights organisations were just beginning to form. Merriman's intention in the piece was to juxtapose the political with the personal. We had vignettes of personal testimony, with the four unnamed characters played by Jen Hazel, Catilin McMillan, Blake Askew and James Irving. They were accompanied by Merriman himself on piano and Chris Hatton on Clarinet, Bass Clarinet and Alto Saxophone.

For the middle section of the piece, Merriman quotes various public figures such as J. Edgar Hoover and McCarthy, and here he has his singers deliver the text as a chorus. The musical style has numerous jazz influences and Merriman mixed up his styles, taking singers from different musical backgrounds. The result was intriguing and created a highly promising dramatic premise. There were times when I thought that Merriman's vocal writing lacked the interest that his instrumental writing had; the jazz/blues numbers were highly effective but when he did 'serious' then the vocal lines seemed to lack interest. But this was a workshop performance of an unfinished piece and what I hope he took away was that there is a very strong operatic drama in there.

The final piece was definitely a finished work. Director Rebecca Hanbury and movement director Amy Insole had devised both scenario and drama with performers Rosie Middleton, Sarah Parkin and Emily Phillips and composer Alex Groves before a note had been written. Groves then wrote the music which combined ambient and trance electronica with the live voices. The three performers came from different backgrounds, one had a lot of experience in baroque dance another, though a trained opera singers, had been a gymnast and did hip-hop whilst the third had no dance training at all. This didn't show, the three created a very intense and very compelling dance drama. There was singing, but frankly it was incidental, it was the movement that mattered. In fact, I found the music incidental too, forming an interesting backdrop rather than a strong component of the drama.

Groves's haunting trance and ambient had dramatic moments and its lovely hypnotic aura but the drama rather seemed to exist independent of it. The choreographic drama had been devised either without music or with found music and the director and performers said in the Q&A afterwards that with hindsight they would bring the music in earlier, and I think that would make it a greater component of the drama. One aspect I found a little jarring, the complete disjunct between sound-world and subject matter. Groves's musical voice seemed such a long way from the Suffragettes and the piece made no nod at all to the sounds of the Suffragettes world. I think the piece would have been stronger if the drama had been freed from its historical roots.

After each piece Prof. Paul Barker from the Central School of Speech and Drama led a Q&A with the artists which provided fascinating insight both into the different creative methods, but also to the audience reactions. It is as salutary experience for a critic to find that a piece which he finds problematic, or dislikes, others find entrancing or compelling.

The next Rough for Opera is at the Cockpit Theatre on 7 April 2014.

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