Friday 2 July 2021

More than a work in progress: first showing of Erchao Gu and Clare Best's opera Rotten Kid

Erchao Gu: Rotten Kid - artwork used during scenography - Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Erchao Gu: Rotten Kid - artwork used during scenography
Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Erchao Gu and Clare Best Rotten Kid; Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 30 June 2021
A new opera based on a comic Chinese folk tale, presented as work-in-progress but demonstrating remarkably confident handling of the genre

Its creators describe the new opera Rotten Kid as a work in progress, but at the score-in-hand work-in-progress showing at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama's Milton Court Concert Hall on Wednesday 30 June 2021, Rotten Kid proved to be a wonderfully confident cross-cultural creation. With music by Erchao Gu and libretto by Clare Best, the piece was performed in a production directed by Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh with George Curnow (tenor) as Rotten Kid, Juliet Wallace (soprano) as Mother and Francisco Reis (bass) as the Suitors. Victoria Hofflin conducted with an ensemble of violin (Anastasia Egorova), clarinet and bass clarinet (Jonathan Willett), double bass (Matthew Downey) and percussion (Tom Hodgson). The scenographers were Manuela Pecorari and Paola Sanchez, the production manager and deputy stage manager was Paris Linxuan Wu.

The work was based on a comic Chinese folk-tale to which librettist Clare Best had given a more cross-cultural feel (the sale of the family's horse invokes from Mother a comment about how will she get to Waitrose!) which was matched by Erchao Gu's music. Gu is of Chinese heritage (her biography describes her being a local of Wuxi (a city in Eastern China, 85 miles North-West of Shanghai), Singapore and London) yet her music has a recognisably Western classical trained cast but hints of other cultures in the way she treats the sound and the instruments. This was her first opera. 

Best, who is a poet and writer, wrote her first libretto for The Apothecary by Amy Crankshaw which premiere last month at the Guildhall School, see my review. And in an evening of firsts, Nazli Tabatabai-Khatambakhsh, who is an experienced director and practitioner in the theatre, was directing her first opera.

The work is short, under 30 minutes, and displays the confidence in not trying to be longer than necessary. The story's prologue, where Rotten Kid loses all the family's money gambling, was presented simply as an instrumental introduction with projected cartoon drawings telling the story. This and the later use of shadowplay drew cross-cultural elements into the theatrical presentation, yet in a way which felt imaginative and contemporary, as well as being a neat solution to presenting a new opera economically.

The plot is simply told, Rotten Kid (George Curnow) has lost all the family's money and plans a new scheme, he will set up as a marriage broker and first of all find a husband for his Mother (Juliet Wallace). A series of suitors appear but are unsatisfactory until the final one (Francisco Reis) appears and eventually proves to be Rotten Kid's father, Rotten Father who abandoned his family rather than dying, as Mother had said. Rather than being the rich suitor Rotten Kid had imagined, Rotten Father and Mother join forces to announce a new scheme, to find Rotten Kid a rich wife!

Gu's approach to the music was highly colourful, she used her instrumental forces imaginatively with a great deal of percussion bringing colour and movement, yet she was not frightened of simply having a single instrumental line. Also, she used the instruments creatively as part of the drama rather than simply accompanying. For the scene with the suitors, which was done as shadow play, we did not have dialogue but instead the instrumental lines gave us a sense of the dialogue, with a wonderfully gruff double bass. When the final suitor appears, Wallace and Reis had a wordless/hummed duet, intriguing us more. 

Her word setting was distinctive, she enjoys splitting up words into syllables for emphasis yet always ensured that the words were clearly set. The vocal lines seemed singable and full of musical interest, though just occasionally I worried that the composer's focus was more on the instrumental lines than the vocal ones. But this might simply have been a balance issue, the instruments were very far forward in the acoustic mix, sometimes to the detriment of the singers' diction, but this is something that a proper pit and a longer rehearsal period can easily fix. What is the key point to take away is that the opera is a long way for the type of contemporary work which is almost a play with music.

The singers and instrumentalists were all impressive in the way that they created a new opera without making us aware of the immense amount of work needed to bring this off. Though it was billed as a score-in-hand performance and though there were scores, the three singers had many of the key passages off the book and there was never any compromise in the communicability of the performance.

There was a lot that could have gone wrong with this project, a first opera with cross-cultural elements both in story and presentation, yet what came across was the feeling of an operatic talent springing fully formed. It may be a work-in-progress but you feel that not much work is needed to 'finish' the opera and I certainly look forward to further productions and to further operas from Erchao Gu.

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