Monday 25 September 2023

A half hour full of switchback changes, genuine surprise & delight: Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin's On Being Vocal at Tête à Tête

Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal - Sarah Parkin - Tête à Tête at the Cockpit (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal - Sarah Parkin - Tête à Tête at the Cockpit (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal; Sarah Parkin, director: Sarah Parkin & Rania Chrysostomou, filmmaker: Catherine Valve; Tête à Tête at the Cockpit
Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders, 10 September 2023

Intriguing and intense operatic exploration of women's hidden stories

A truly collaborative creation between the British/Cypriot composer Rania Chrysostomou and the Canadian/French soprano Sarah Parkin, On Being Vocal, was presented on 10 September 2023 at the Cockpit as part of Tête à Tête: the Opera Festival. This short opera managed to squeeze an enormous amount of content and variety into a running time just over half an hour. In the setting of a women's support group, and aided by Catherine Valve's projected film, Parkin took on the six different roles, each with its own distinct characterisation and musical voice.

Starting with a nice touch of scene setting – a short film showing the women arriving one-at-a-time to a semicircle of chairs, the action moved to the stage itself, the same arc of chairs recreated, in the real. Initially inhabiting the character of the group leader, and then the other women, Parkin moved from chair to chair, using a few props to clearly establish her multiple roles, each of which had its own aria or song, so that in this manner the work's structure was delineated by the changing characterisations.

The group leader started with a spoken introduction, which played with the dramatic irony of addressing empty chairs, with words that could be felt as being addressed instead towards the audience – the kind of deft touch which underlaid the whole work – and which led into a breathing exercise and then an extended haunting, wordless vocalise, at first hummed before Parkin demonstrated her purest, most soulful legato.

Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal - Sarah Parkin - Tête à Tête at the Cockpit (Photo: Claire Shovelton)
Rania Chrysostomou & Sarah Parkin: On Being Vocal
Sarah Parkin - Tête à Tête at the Cockpit (Photo: Claire Shovelton)

Switching smoothly to the next character, and moving seat to indicate this, Parkin immediately seemed to become an entirely different performer, choking, writhing and struggling to make sound, producing bursts of body percussion and finally one, beautifully sung line, before suddenly moving around the circle to transform once more. This third role mixed swooping sprechstimme, spoken phrases and floated lyrical phrases, blending self reflection with warnings against dreaming.

Moving around the arc once more, Parkin next became stuck in an extended loop of wordless humming and vocalising, repeating the same few notes obsessively, clutching and clawing at herself and the chair, as if unable to escape some unspoken inner turmoil or torment, eventually breaking down both musically and physically in an ever more virtuosic vocal display, before returning to the quiet, calm repetitions with which she began. This was an utterly mesmeric display, and seemed to be the emotional heart of the piece, the “slow movement” of this vocal symphony.

By contrast, the penultimate role was certainly a kind of scherzo, a comedic interlude featuring glitchy beats, parody adverts and “Tik-tok videos” projected behind Parkin, as if we were viewing the screen of the phone she held in the middle of the stage. The rapid changes of sound, movement, video and Parkin's responses to them with voice and dance formed a quirky, inwardly looking counterpoint of sorts. Finally, the last character turned out to be a whole collection of characters, seen and heard in spoken quotes, outbursts and exclamations each with different accents and attitudes, which continually interrupted a breathlessly expressive and declamatory line.

There was an incredible amount of content and variety packed into the six or seven short episodes of this piece – a genuine tour de force of imagination from composer Rania Chrysostomou, and this, combined with Parkin's versatility and uncanny ability to rapidly switch style and character – in some cases in the same vocal line – ensured that this was a half hour full of switchback changes and genuine surprise and delight.

Reviewed by Florence Anna Maunders

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