Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Day After, ENO Studio Live


A hot Saturday in June with the bars of West Hampstead overflowing with Arsenal supporters watching the FA Cup Final playing out just up the road was perhaps a tricky backdrop for English National Opera to offer a new platform for their work. More than this, the piece with which ENO Studio Live (that's #ENOStudioLive for the connected) has opened is a little known opera by Jonathan Dove concerning some sort of apocalypse.

The Day After was originally written as a five hander with scoring to be performed en plein air. Jonathan Dove has adapted it for chorus and it is difficult to imagine how it might have been otherwise. The story is that of Greek myth, as the impetuous Phaeton takes advantage of his father Phoebus' largesse and demands that he ride the sun chariot, which he does to a disastrous end. The full ENO chorus are simply marvellous as a classic Greek chorus, both a contemporary population of characters and the implacably-faced corporate narrator. Rachael Lloyd and William Morgan join soloists from the chorus Robert Winslade Anderson, Claire Mitcher and Susanna Tudor-Thomas as the characters. James Henshaw conducts from behind the stage in Lillian Baylis House Studio 1. It's vocally & musically excellent across the board, the company managing - or relishing? - the new demands of a different acoustic (a little dry with, sotto voce air conditioning) without any dramatic reserve.

Above all, I was very struck with things I might not otherwise have noticed, i.e. in the Coliseum. The attention to detail of the stage preparation left one convinced that the company was walking on ash. I assumed that the three choristers directly in front of me had colds until it became clear that 'ill health' was the intent of a meticulous make-up team. So often in London one attends small-scale, alternative venue close-proximity operatic productions in which the costuming, design and make-up have been left to chance or the whim of the performers. it becomes clear at moments like this that a company such as ENO really does believe the Gesamtkunsterk ('total art work') creed of opera and moreover, makes it work.

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Performing Live - Peril or Thrill?

Image: The Daily Telegraph

Clearly, performing live is both perilous and thrilling for performer and audience alike. I'm focused here on well-worn work, repertory pieces of music or theatre. The appeal of (re-)creating drama or music in front of other people is amplified by these poles. It's thrilling to hear an alternative interpretation of how the music show 'go', how the sound of a different voice and collection of instruments brings its own character to bear on even the most familiar works. It's also thrilling to see how artists negotiate difficult music or multitask the demands of behaving and moving in peroration. Sometimes the music is simply incredibly difficult and seeing an artist overcome the pitfalls of producing a coherent performance is exciting enough. The real thrill is experiencing that in service of the piece rather than in service of the artist.

Things can go wrong, however. One of the important ways in which artists contribute to the audience's experience is how they, the artists, deal with mishap. This is connected to the overlooked connection not only empathetically but also physically between performer and audience, the key component of the value in the acoustic experience in music. Deal honestly with the stumble or the hindrance and an audience appreciates it; deal with it in good grace and with humour and the audience feel a strengthening of their connection and the value of the subsequent performance can improve. The opposite can poison the experience, though in unique circumstances great artistry might overcome it.

This all occurred to me in a week in which social media passed on tales of mishaps in central London performances. This time it had been a page turner falling foul of a pianist's temper in a song recital and the audience's gleeful reaction to a stage gag during an opera production so drowning the orchestra that the conductor had to re-start an aria. The abiding memory of these events is less what went wrong than how it was dealt with. I recall a couple of extreme examples in which opera performers have suffered injury during a performance or run of performances but, with voice intact and untouched, have gone on to perform making the unwarranted impediment into a virtue (I'm thinking of Robert Burt snapping a ligament during the Glyndebourne Fairy Queen or Joyce DiDonato (+ rest of cast, by default) performing in the Royal Opera's Barber of Seville in a wheelchair.

In such circumstances, the music - the work at hand - becomes less resonant than the manner of its delivery. This is a valuable thing to recognise as it reminds performer and audience alike that the re-creation of even the most familiar of repertory pieces is at the heart of the valued performance. It also signposts the way for the performer to deal with it: to acknowledge the peril and thrill of the situation on behalf of everyone in the room and yet, I suggest, to offer the composure and reassurance from the stage that brings an audience back to their experience through the work at hand.

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Rough for Opera 14, Second Movement, Cockpit Theatre


Second Movement's Rough for Opera series is a vital part of London's operatic life-cycle. Of the spurt of showcase events throughout the capital in the past decade, Rough for Opera's is now something of a flagship, an exemplar. An established series, it exists as a platform apart from the work and artists on show. It also benefits from being professionally run, and from operating in a well-equipped theatre that can deal with manifold musical or dramatic whimsy.

This technical capability was conspicuously valuable for the first two works in a typically eclectic evening's programme. Two Sided Boy investigated the social pixelation of modern life, as a mother frets about her relationship with her son who is immersed in virtual reality. This piece shares technical and material themes with Nico Muhly's avatar-thriller Two Boys (ENO, 2011); the Q&A revealed ambitions for an unconventional additional role for mobile interaction with audience smartphones. Also in the first half, Anna Clock's Constellations created evocative sounds in tandem with Lauren Tata's live projection arrangements - imagine Olafur Eliason's Weather Project vibrating to a soundtrack.


After some discussion inside and outside the theatre, we returned for a more conventionally operatic offering, with Martin Ward's The Sinken Sun (pictured above). Putting the experience of a successful career writing for both lyric and straight theatrical stages, Martin (writing both music and text) has picked out an angle on his interest in the life of writer John Clare. This two hander takes a look at Clare from the perspective of the man and through the eyes of a contemporary reader, so opening up a point of view about the endurance of art, the communicability of spoken word - sung here, of course, the natural medium for the meter of Clare's text. With carefully prepared parts and good singing from the soprano (Billie Robson) and baritone (Paul Sheehan) and staging marked only with the most simple lighting and costume, the text and its rigorous setting were the constant focus. As pianist James Young pointed out, Martin Ward's music has a horizontal profile. The lyricism is in the lines. The harmony is rather wild, a reflection of the untamed countryside, the situation of text and opera, but the sung lines chart a course through it, aesthetically and narratively.

Song, stage and story may not be the operatic-component shooting match in 21st lyric theatre. The versatility - and reliability - of audio and visual projection is now a theatrical given. Additionally, the ubiquity of handheld devices and the reliability of connection mean that interaction may have some future in the theatre.

The challenge is to purpose this capability. The ever-present but unanswered question of showcase events, of which Rough for Opera is at the forefront, concerns the nature of opera itself. Yet "What is opera?" is actually a less interesting question than "What does this creative team consider opera to be?". Irrespective of the means to their end, it must be part of each creative team's working basis that they have a clear idea of the practical-aesthetic manner (as well as content) of how they connect with the audience. Rough for Opera have a sympathetic, open, interested and - judging fro comments and questions, informed - audience comprised not only of friends and followers of the performers; they also have the luxury of a clear-sighted mediator of the valuable Q&A sessions that succeed each performance, with Paul Barker finding value and questions alike in the work. The work on show at last night's typically provoking event stirred up the issue of the intent of each creative group's efforts once again and showed the importance of pursuing some sort of personal answers, if not consensus.

Thursday, 17 November 2016

Listen Pony

This week the OED decided that their word of the year was going to be 'post-truth'. It's quite a 'post-' year all round in fact. The familiar is history and novelty has settled down in its place.

This is clearly the case in music. We are post-Crossover, with its careful packaging of artist, venue and all-round experience for the widest possible audience (at the expense of the music). We are post-re-appropriation, with the experiments of Yellow Lounge, Night Shift and the like taking genre classical into opposition genre venues (clubs, pubs) to highlight the common ground of the musical venn diagram; or new work in incongruent venues (a bascule bridge counterweight housinga concrete factory) to offset the increasingly curious dissonance of contemporary music in formal design concert halls. The experiment of space-annexation in operatic production has also run its course.

Though Listen Pony bears the hallmarks of the Noughties novelty drive - sticking apparently incongruent words together to stake a claim in the new world of digitised promotional platforms - that's as far as any fad goes. Tuesday's concert brought together musicians who wanted to play music they liked without any further agenda. There's no angle for selling a concert of old and brand new music featuring a saxophone quartet, a viola da gamba player, and a chanteuse covering Schumann with a saw. Why else would you name your collective after one farmyard animal and then pop another (a cock) on the publicity? This concert, presented in four 20 min sets rather than hour-long halves is not necessarily new in format. However, the ease of the audience and the performers who talked with us freely and fluently demanded that we consider the post-modernity of the circumstances and the path we have all tried and trudged to get here.

And so to the music - which, in the absence of things being sold or fashions being showcased, was all it came down to. The dry-but-not-dead acoustic of Clerkenwell's Crypt on the Green is a good venue, neutral and clear for the wide range of colour and dynamic in the acoustic line-up. We heard diaphanous sinuousness in Freya Waley-Cohen's Unbridling and a Marin Marais work that sounded like a folk song. Alastair Putt's restricted-palette Tombeau found extra, more occluded colours when Liam Byrne was asked to play closer to the bridge of his viola da gamba. The Laefer Quartet were equal to the extreme demands of their own programming, fleet of fingerwork in fast passages ( which showed how expressively percussive the onset of sound in a saxophone can be) with great beauty of blend and voice leading. I especially liked the meticulous tuning of Emre Sihan Kaleli's Funeral Music, leading to a genuine Cageian experience in which beats from quarter-tone tuning dovetailed with the gentle purr of the air conditioning. I also liked the Desenclos quartet movement, which sounded like English light music seasoned in a French kitchen and served with the same √©lan.

The final set was dedicated to sing Mara Carlyle and an extraordinary lucky dip of songs from Dichterliebe to Lauryn Hill, the stand out final ensemble number. The appreciative audience - largely young, musically educated middle class - may be the only constant at the current perigee of metropolitan classical music event but the point is that the music is all that anyone was there for.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

William Kentridge, Thick Time, Whitechapel


I visited this exhibition today with the express purpose of homework ahead of ENO's Lulu, starting next week. The production is Kentridge's brought over from the Met. Indeed it is a year of Berg for this expressionist, multimedia artist, who is doing Wozzeck in Germany later in 2017.

Expressionist, DADA, surreal, the pieces have that rough-edged aesthetic of the readymades, the majority being Heath Robinson-style machines that provide narrative. The point of 'Thick Time' though is that the narrative isn't always in a straight line but can go backwards too and so often finds itself in a circle.

This is part of he machination then. Bicycle wheels sit alongside the ubiquitous loudhailer. A contraption like a chamber organ driven by a relentless series of camshafts is in the centre of The Refusal of Time in the first room, though its connection to the projection is not always clear. On the first floor a meticulously prepared screen and projection arrangement invokes a Punch & Judy Cabaret Voltaire with all its rough edges as a tribute to Wedekind's Pandora's Box with Right Into Her Arms.

All the pieces have an element of slogan, of pitching ideas to a public without much fuss over whether they connect or not. The OED is not a text for reading but in Kentridge's re-working, the basis for moving images, (well-rendered) drawings of characters walking, dancing or speaking. In many situations it's Kentridge himself in action; the figure isn't the subject but the agent.

It will be interesting to see whether this very much postmodern aesthetic helps deliver or subvert the rigorously expressionist Lulu. The one thing that definitely impresses in the exhibition which I hope to see next week is the careful implementation of the technology, with moving sets and images well-integrated into the pieces at the Whitechapel.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Lost In The Stars, Highbury Opera Theatre


'It's fear. Fear of the few for the many; fear of the many for the few.'

Last night I attended the final performance of Highbury Opera Theatre's production of Lost In The Stars, Kurt Weill's final musical of 1949. It's a world away from the rasping, Brechtian sewer of the Threepenny Opera (which I saw at the National Theatre at the beginning of the month). However, for all that its language is the Rogers & Hammerstein side of Gershwin and its message given in modern, broad stroke American vernacular its still a tough story of racial division. This is, exasperatingly, a refreshed subject of current events, both here and abroad. Indeed, the grander themes of truth and mistrust are also the most contentious issues emerging from the current American presidential election campaigns. It is present.

There is no shrinking from message or music in what Highbury Opera Theatre offer. This is in no small measure because of the involvement of the community, making up the vast majority of the cast and ensemble, including no fewer than four children's choruses. It is also worth noting that the febrile atmosphere in the Union Chapel was that this sense of community involvement was woven right into the back seats of the auditorium. There is little sense of division in such an enterprise, no consumer-expectation. Tickets are bought to support friends, family and the work of neighbours rather than in pursuit of another London entertainment.

With this investment that starts before the box office, the audience offer attentiveness. In return, the company are not shy. The story is one of difficult decisions made to get by and grasping the responsibility of those choices both in the present and for the future. South African costuming and accents season the colour and dynamism of the staging, including a brilliant sequence with a multi-piece cardboard train. The fun contrasts violently and effectively with the pathos of dramatic corners in which all are fully invested. The children's set-piece, Big Mole, may bring the house down but it is just one of many admirable turns that defy niggling criticism with properly earnest performance.

Driving the show is the energetic Scott Stroman, complete with 12 piece band. Good work all round.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

La Boheme up even closer

I caught the final Boheme in a run at King's Head Theatre at the weekend. This isn't the long-running, genre-defining Opera Up Close version but rather the King's Head Theatre's own production in a new adaptation by their director Adam Spreadbury-Maher.

We haven't quite reached the end of the new wave that began above a pub in Kilburn - and in the pub in Kilburn - that pioneered bijou, site-specific, alternative productions in vernacular translation that's taken opera out to IKEA, Victorian tunnels, an asylum chapel, the workplace and the street. However the comparison between the Opera Up Close Boheme I saw in 2010 and this latest version is worth considering for a moment.

What's changed then? Well, The King's Head cut the opera down beyond even the arrangement, removing characters to leave a cast of four - Marcello, Rodolfo, Mimi & Musetta. Most of the time this means removing sequences or even scenes, occasionally just re-appropriating music to a different character or the band. Interestingly, the band has grown 100% from Up Close, the piano being joined by a cello (the string instrument a pleasant addition, both focusing the intimacy of the drama and also seasoning the Gallic flavour in Puccini's Parisian score). The playing has improved beyond measure from the first experiments. No-one leaves the single-set space but the audience engagement is even more consistent. It's down to the chutzpah and professionalism of the cast that this comes off the right side of panto.

What remains is the punchy modernity of the text - and the fact that its often the incongruity of words that pulls laughter, rather than jokes in context of the opera. Laughing at, rather than with: I'm not convinced its a good thing. One has to be rather careful with profanity, as one must be careful with contemporary political reference and modern drug abuse. It's funny how the one thing that a modern Boheme (specifically) can get away with is the use of multiple digital devices, given the basic penury of the characters of the original. Text & social media messaging is sufficiently ingrained into the vernacular that it resists note.

The new impetus in opera in the past decade which no doubt galvanised the Up Close movement is the need to re-invigorate the dramatic purpose of the genre (let alone the repertoire). Both shows do this. Naturally, something of Puccini's intention is sacrificed. The melodic calibre of the score is such that this shines through though. However, one thing that no manipulation of the artform can game-change (to appropriate a term) is the need for good singing, especially in a small space when the work at hand is designed for a medium to large lyric theatre; a mixed cast in this respect is the one consistent thread through performances of Boheme at close quarters over the last 7 years.