Monday 10 August 2015

Contemporary opera is alive and well and living in King's Cross

Andrew Walker and Guy Woolf in Dan Gillingwater's The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera - Tete a Tete the Opera Festival
Andrew Walker, Guy Woolf in Dan Gillingwater's
The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera
Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival; Born Mad, Bastard Assignments, Red and Ginger Productions; Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival at Kings Place
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on Aug 8,9 2015
Lively selection of contemporary opera at this year's festival of short new music theatre pieces

I caught up with Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival over the weekend sampling just a few events from the huge range on offer at Kings Place, showing that the art of contemporary opera seems to be alive and well as people push the genre in a variety of striking directions. The three main events which I saw were Born Mad's Mix with a selection of excerpts from works devised in ensemble, with composer Alex Groves and director Rebecca Hanbury on Friday 7 August 2015, and on Sunday 9 August, Red and Ginger productions The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera with music by Dan Gillingwater, and words by Kees Moeliker, directed by Sarah Redmond, and Bastard Assignments3 a group of three short music theatre works by members of the composers collective Bastard Assignments, Josh Spear, Edward Henderson and Timothy Cape. In addition there were the Pop-Up Operas, performed in the foyer of Kings Place and I saw UnconGENIE-al with music by James Garner and words by Anna Pool, My Mother My Daughter with music & words by Orlando Gough, and Wake Up! with music by Ayanna Witter-Johnson and words by Susannah Waters.

Lewis Brotherton, Richard Dodwell, Josh Spear in Josh Spear's He/Himself - Bastard Assignments at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival
Lewis Brotherton, Richard Dodwell, Josh Spear
in Josh Spear's He/Himself
Born Mad is a performance collective which devises music theatre work in the rehearsal studio. Their works combines dance, music and singing and are designed for classically trained voices, the musical element combines electronics with live singing in a number of different ways. The founders of the group are composer Alex Groves and director Rebecca Hanbury.  Their programme Mix presented a selection of works, including some excerpts, along with a sampling of their latest work in progress. All were performed on a bare, black stage with the performers in black.

We started with Locus an exploration of insomnia performed by Catherine Carter, Emily Phillips and Chiara Vinci, with Amy Insole as movement director. This was three singers, three interweaving hypnotic lines with a very restrained sense of movement. I loved the evocative structure of the music and thought it caught the obsessive nature of insomnia well, but lacked a little of the desperation.
Hunger was the group's first ever work, and is based on diary entries from British suffragettes. We had two short excerpts performed by Catherine Carter and Emily Phillips again with Amy Insole as movement director. Both combined music and movement in strikingly expressive ways (I saw the work complete when they presented it at Second Movement's Rough for Opera see my review) with a daring simplicity. We also saw an excerpt from Psyche in which a character re-lives the horrors of a police investigation. It was performed by CN Lester with the recorded voice of Sam Morgan, and the writer was Ben Behrens. CN Lester displayed bravura performance schizophrenia by performing not only their character, but miming the words of the interrogator from the recorded voice. The subject matter addressed was profoundly disturbing, and though judging a work from an excerpt is tricky, I felt that Alex Grove's ambient/trance style soundtrack and the rather lyrical vocal line for CN Lester, though expressive, did not go far enough and could have been more disturbing.

Timothy Cape, Louis d'Heudieres, Edward Henderson, Caitlin Rowley in Edward Henderson's Hum - Bastard Assignments at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival
Timothy Cape, Louis d'Heudieres, Edward Henderson,
Caitlin Rowley in Edward Henderson's Hum
Mouse was a funny exploration of absurdist theatre, with a lovely combination of music and movement performed by Catherine Carter, Emily Phillips and Chiara Vinci, with writer Tom Robinson. Privates was a solo piece performed by Chiara Vinci which used text spoken by Jennifer Lawrence following leaks of nude pictures of her.

Finally we saw Chiari Vinci and Emily Phillips in excerpts from Sisters, a new work in progress devised by Emily Phillips with designer Naomi Kuyck-Cohen and movement director Michael Spencely. This aimed to explored sisterhood and used recorded testimony from interviews with sisters. The results had a charming nostalgic view of childhood, but it seemed difficult to assess how the group will expand the scenes into a full length work with a clearer sense of drama and intensity.

All the works in Mix showed an innovative combination of music, drama and movement. Occasionally really getting to the heart of a piece, but sometimes seeming to shy away from intense pain and dramatic intensity.

On Sunday 9 August, Bastard Assignments also presented a showcase of works which pushed the operatic genre to see where it would go. Bastard Assignments is a composers collective based in South London and though the three works were each composed by a different person, they all partook of the same ethos. Here it wasn't so much the dramatic narrative that was important but the sense of ritual and gesture. Again, the accompaniment was electronic, but the voices varied from the trained singer to spoken.

He/Himselfie with music by Josh Spear and words by Josh Spear and Richard Dodwell was performed by Lewis Bretherton, Richard Dodwell and Josh Spear. For the opening sequence, again with ambient style music, there was a black lump in the centre of the acting area which gradually revealed itself to be an unspecified number of people in a black stretchy covering. They stretched and eventually emerged, chrysallis like, in a very disturbing sequence; one nude, one in underwear and one in shorts. Then standing in front of microphones, with a projected backdrop which combined graphic art with images of gym class, they performed a thoughtful text which examined male self-image. It was an intriguing work and of the three seemed the one which was the most dramatically cohesive, or a least conformed to my own sense of what a drama should be.

Born Mad's Mouse at Tete a Tete: The Opera Festival
Born Mad's Mouse
The Image of a Woman in a Forest, Listening by Timothy Cape, performed by Timothy Cape, Louis D'Heudieres, and Edward Henderson seemed to be examining the sense of ritual and gesture. The three performers sat in a circle, each had a group of bamboo sticks and a ceramic tile in front of them. Dropping the sticks onto the tile, or blowing through them were the main sources of sound, and some of the effects where highly intriguing. Over this there was some speaking and at one point they recited what a voice over the loud-speaker recited. It was a work which required you to explore the moment, and surrender yourself, rather than examining a dramatic flow of events.

Hum by Edward Henderson, with words by Lavinia Murray, was similar in many ways as four performers, Timothy Cape, Louis d'Heudieres, Edward Henderson and Caitlin Rowley performed a series of gestures (using a tuning fork, humming, whistling, playing a plastic mouth-organ, mumbling, speaking, singing) which, combined with the words by Lavinia Murray which they all used when speaking, evoked the problems of losing one's hearing. Nothing was heard correctly, and the result was at its best rather disturbing. But, the work seemed to lack concision and be unsure whether it was an evocation of hearing loss or an exploration of ritual. It could be mesmerising, or exasperating depending on your point of view.

All three works were thought provoking, and questioned quite what an opera/music theatre work can be. Making you think about the means by which we tell stories and examine emotions in a music theatre work.

The final main stage piece was in some ways the most conventional, but still in its own way innovative and certainly the funniest. Dan Gillingwater's The Homosexual Necrophiliac Duck Opera sets a paper which was written by Kees Moeliker who is curator of the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. The paper covers an incident he witness at the museum when a male mallard duck flew into the museum's glass wall and died, and was then promptly raped by one of its fellows. Moeliker himself introduced the event, setting the scene and he makes a very good straight man (he also played in the instrumental ensemble, playing the duck call). For the opera proper, Sarah Redmond played the scientist (and directed) with Alice Redmond as her assistant. That the two are sisters and have a cabaret act too seemed to infuse the performance and the whole thing was a play on the whole genre of opera, its stylised formality, the soprano's Big Frock which was then improbably covered with a lab coat. As Sara Redmond sang Dan Gillingwater's dramatic setting of the paper, the events were acted out with the help of Andrew Walker as the duck and Guy Woolf as the dead duck with choreography by Cristian Valle.  Dan Gillinwater's music, played by the Edge Ensemble (clarinet quintet), was lyrically and dramatic, making sympathetic and highly effective accompaniment to the text as well as providing the occasional witty comment. Sarah Redmond gave a bravura performance, and my only complaint was that we could not always hear her words clearly. But the result was very funny and very thought provoking (Kees Moeliker's original paper won an Ig Nobel award which aims to reward work which is funny but makes people think about science).

I also caught three of the Pop-Up operas which are a feature of any  Tête à Tête:The Opera Festival. This year they were performed by singers Amy Freston and Hannah Mason, cellists Dan Bull and Angélique Lihou, with  music direction by Timothy Burke with James Young, and direction by Bill Bankes-Jones with Oliver Platt, design by Sarah Booth. The performed struggled somewhat with the lively acoustic of the Kings Place foyer, and by being confined into a corner and I have to confess that Orlando Gough's My Mother My Daughter whizzed by without me working out what was going on beyond a sense of wit in both word and music. UnconGENIE-al by James Garner and Anna Pool managed to be very funny indeed, whilst Wake Up! by Ayanna Witter-Johnson and Susannah Waters needed a more intimate space to get the detail of the musical dialogue across. All three works where highly effectively scored for two singers and two cellos, and often the delight was to forget about the drama and simply enjoy the imaginative textures.

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