Wednesday 13 August 2014

Tête a Tête opera festival part 3: Exploring Life and life in the Antarctic

Narrator: Gary Merry, in On the axis of the World by Matt Rogers at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival - photo credit: Claire Shovelton
Narrator: Gary Merry, in On the axis of the world by Matt Rogers
photo credit: Claire Shovelton
As the Tête a Tête opera festival is drawing to a close I managed to get to another two performances. This year the event is hosted by Kings Place and Central St Martin's and continues the tradition of exploration of creativity in opera. Thursday's (7 August 2014) performances were explorations in themselves with Life from Light by Toni Castells, and On the axis of the World by Matt Rogers.

'Life from Light' by Toni Castells (who was interviewed for this blog in 2012) was an epic collaboration involving musicians, vocalists, visual artists, and the award-winning electronic producer Adam John Williams to produce a very slick and professional film with live music exploring the physical and sociological origins of life, with a nod in the direction of war, and environmental issues.

Clearly these are questions which play on Castells' mind. The pictures were rapidly changing, flicking from scenes of nature, to dividing cells, people kissing, cities, bombs, vivisection and disasters. Some images were present in each movement, regardless of intellectual content, providing a common thread linking them all together.

The music was lyrical, with its underlay of birdsong, wind and rushing water. Some movements leaned towards classical, others more popular with rock guitar or, with the addition of trumpet (played by Cuban jazz trumpeter Yelfris Valdes) and megaphone oration, Ibiza chill out music reminiscent of Groove Armada or The Orb. But stylistically the music's consistency provided a thematic coherence that fit what Castells appeared to be doing with the images. The Korean aria saw violinist Amy Yuan switch to Erhu (a Chinese two stringed fiddle) providing a hint of the orient within the general sound world.

It was really the words and the singers performances which let the audience engage with Castells' thoughts. The libretto included poems by Castells himself (and text he adapted from Wikipedia), Shakespeare, Barack Obama, North Korean military commanders, Edgar Allen Poe and two works listed as being by Anastasia and Vladimir Megré.

Vladimir Megré has written a series of books (which without reading the books) seem to be based on his mysterious meeting with a girl (Anastasia), in a Russian forest with magical healing powers, which are retold as a blueprint for understanding the effect humanity has in the Universe and how we are all loved by the world.

This love-fest contrasted starkly with the previous aria taken from Wikipedia coldly describing sex. Although not in the best English it did mean that the beautiful and, in her ball gown, somewhat prim looking Meeta Raval had to sing the words 'erect penis' and 'female's vagina'. While this provided another layer of contrast, the very impersonality of the words meant that it was less shocking than perhaps Castells had intended. In that respect the 'fake boob' aria sung by countertenor Oliver Gerrish was more successful.

Classical Brit nominee Camilla Kerslake, 2004 X-Factor finalist Roberta Howett, and Castells himself provided the rest of the vocals.

This was the most cinematic multimedia experience I have seen for a while and, by bringing this kind of production to experimental opera, Castells has created something which is far more mainstream.

'On the axis of this world' by Matt Rogers and performed by the Cambridge City Opera, was an exploration not only of the Antarctic, but, by using words from the archives of the Scott Polar Research Institute, was also an exploration of the human mind in extreme conditions.

After the successful Discovery Expedition (1901-1904) the British Antarctic Expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott set off in 1911 in a race to reach the South Pole. Beaten to the pole by Roald Amundsen's Norwegian expedition, sadly Scott and his team died of exposure and starvation on the return journey. Nevertheless they recorded everything they saw and did, providing a lasting legacy of their achievement and scientific discoveries.

Nicholas Crawley and Magid El-Bushra in On the axis of this world by Matt Rogers at Tete a Tete:The Opera Festival -photo credit: Claire Shovelton
Nicholas Crawley and Magid El-Bushra
in On the axis of this world by Matt Rogers
photo credit: Claire Shovelton
'On the axis of this world' set texts from Henry Bowers' letter to his sister, the Terra Nova's Meteorological Diary, Victor Campbell's journal, geologist Lester King's 'The morphology of the Earth', and notes from a lecture given by Scott himself. In this semi-staged performance the words were brought to life by Nicholas Crawley (baritone) and Magid El-Bushra (countertenor) along with actor Gary Merry who provided a narration.

The performers were accompanied by Rodger's other worldly, minimalistic score performed on clarinet, cello, and accordion. This combination of instruments was inspired – Rodgers exploited the differences in sound quality and range between them as notes were passed around or contrasted for example beeps and squiggles against held notes. This scheme worked as well for accompaniment as it did for interludes and the sound combinations resulted in some interesting effects especially when the two singers were (and indeed all the performers) were in unison, octaves apart.

Never short of drama 'On the axis of the world' took the audience along with Scott and his compatriots to the snowy wilderness of the Antarctic as we delved into their everyday lives. Much like 'Life from light' this was ultimately an exploration about human nature, this time wrapped up in an exploration of the world.

What most people remember about the Terra Nova expedition is the tragedy, but here Rogers has highlighted their achievements and the great positive force of human endeavour.

The Tête a Tête opera festival, a great human endeavour in itself, may have reached its final conclusion – but there is always hope of another year. Past festivals can be viewed on line here.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover
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