Monday, 27 August 2012

Mittwoch aus Licht, Birmingham Opera Company

For the past three months I have been preparing for and participating in a short run of performances of Stockhausen's opera Mittwoch aus Licht with the Birmingham Opera Company. For all our insider knowledge of the staging, and the information we were offered in order to help us make sense of it, this is still a bewildering art-work in which to find oneself and I thought I'd try to record the experience in order to get a grip on it.

This production of Mittwoch is a first as the technical demands (principally, logistics and cost) have scuppered any previous attempts at a contiguous staging. In addition to the infamous, unconventional helicopters and the usual paraphernalia of producing conventional operatic staging, there's also the apparatus necessary to suspend a dozen or so orchestral players from the ceiling and the intricacies of wiring every performer for sound, mixed live and projected octophonically in two auditoria. That and hogging all Birmingham's available yellow paint (the colour assigned to the opera).

It's a relief then that a production that might reasonably sustain accusations of profligacy exhibits just as much lo-fi, real-time theatrical graft with which to present Stockhausen's conceit. Graham Vick's Birmingham Opera Company co-opted the Argyle industrial estate, a plot between a canal and a ring road providing a two-hall factory and a now-familiar temporary home for the company. However this familiarity in no way compromised its appropriation for Mittwoch as its size and anonymity (and faintly dystopian resonance) makes a suitably vast, blank space for this alien piece.

Crucially, labouring underneath all the high-end electronics and ambition were not only traditional singers, instrumentalists and dancers but also a large number of enthusiastic, amateur locals. The community corps of the company were present throughout the production, embedded either with the 'professionals', or the audience or performing in their own right. In this more than any other piece they seem to carry the philosophical-aesthetic kernel of Stockhausen's vision; that the boundaries between the world and the performing space are fluid and that the sound and theatre of the event within should envelop and permeate. True Gesamtkunstwerk. Incidentally, Wagner, whose own music dramas were responsible for this term created his final piece in this mould as a Bühnenweihfestspiel, or 'stage-consecrating festival play', which is just as good a way of describing Mittwoch.

The opera opens with this body of actors in a tableaux of visions, Greeting, picked out in a blackened hall with sharp lighting. These move across the diegesis offered by the factory building, with characters climbing pipes on the walls in nimble parkour routines or a child's face at an interior window, moving into more confusing images; pregnant women moving between impassive men, a naked woman washing in a child's paddling pool, a woman knitting or weaving like a Norn aboard a massive dais on casters. A man with a model of a commercial airliner picked out in the centre is particularly startling (but more of that later). The effect of the whole, underpinned by a slowly shifting synthesized backing is very strong, a nicely calibrated theatrical acclimatiser, warming up the audience's imagination.

The next scene (the first of the opera proper) is in the adjacent hall. World Parliament is an exclusively choral piece performed (by Birmingham choir Ex Cathedra) atop fifty or so yellow step ladders (in place of the Fritz Lang or Ayn Randian like vision of their straddling skyscrapers). Dressed as politicians whose national flags are painted on their faces, the undulating discussion makes sense through the waves of gestures coming from different sections of the choir and the lines of (consistently well-sung) individual solos. Any risk of pomposity, or that the symbolism of the costuming, nationalist make-up or the elevation of the performers may be drying the drama is punctuated by a prosaic interruption from a traffic warden. This is one of a number of a number of boyish interpolations - prescribed by Stockhausen, rather than Vick - which help the audience keep a grip on the reality of the performance amidst the psychedelia. The smearing of the make-up at the conclusion to uni-form their appearance is a nice simple touch in keeping with the rather earthy, sexualised acting.

The subsequent scenes are at the heart of the piece. Orchestral Finalists has a dozen instrumentals suspended from the ceiling, bobbing, cavorting, misbehaving and occasionally playing, whilst the acting company rush in and out, taking on their own bestial characters or in reaction to the instrumentalists. It's a theatrical menagerie, and the most explicit statement in Stockhausen's drama to the evolutionary continuum that formed the centre of his philosophy. This is the vision of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, above), where the split-second transition from apes to space travel is midwived by Johann Strauss - and catalysed by strange electronic transmissions.

Photo: Intermezzo.typepad.com
Indeed, there is also a spaceman in Orchestral Finalists. Flight in general is becoming important, with origami birds and paper aeroplanes introduced among the musicians 'flying' above the ground. It's into this situation that the commercial airliner from the opening is introduced once again. Strong for being a unique, repeated trope, I suddenly found myself associatively confronted with 9/11, and not least as the tableau concludes as the actor bearing the model meets a mimed London underground train carriage (the scene dissolves into white-rabbit watch-checking). In a possibly anachronistic work of art (the original conception for Licht dates from the early 1970s) with its warm but nebulous messages of mysterious psychological associations and international unity through (sexual) love, this token seems hard, dark and up-to-date. Stockhausen's reputation suffered after he made comments about the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the context of the themes of Licht. Though there isn't an immediate suggestion that this symbol is intended to refer to either his comments or the event itself, it does serve to open that pocket of the imagination. With the possible exception of the final scene, Mittwoch appears to have little story and so little in-built tension with which to propel the drama. The introduction of such a symbol as a commercial airliner (Lufthansa, not United Airlines-liveried, it should be said) is a bold move to stretch the envelope of the experience at hand without manipulating or commenting on Stockhausen's intentions. I suspect it's also a characteristic sleight of hand on the part of Vick, focusing the experience without skewing its meaning. What the director couldn't have foreseen (one assumes!) is that during the first run-through, a fire in an adjacent tyre factory would provide a smoke-cloud backdrop to the images being broadcast from the helicopter cameras, which might recall airborne TV cameras during 9/11, even if only in the fiction of memory.

Whatever the production symbolism, the opera's meditation on flight is most explicit in that Helicopter String Quartet, the next scene. Impeccably - and informally - rendered by the Elysian Quartet, pilots, technicians and the 'Essex boy of Sri Lankan descent' Radio 1 DJ Nihal, the piece itself cannot quite sustain its own profuse ideas. However, it is extraordinary that such violent sound can be organised to provide a potentially tantric experience for the audience and I did find myself mesmerised after the manner of Messiaen or even Steve Reich's Different Trains.

After a break (curry in the car park!) came Michaelion, the final scene, that in which I was participating as part of London Voices. The flight thematics have now dispersed in, once again, a Kubrickian-psychedelic flight into the universe, with Brahmin regeneration at its end. The most conventionally operatic staging, this is a dark, dynamic piece for a choir of soloists and four virtuosic guiding instrumentalists. Characters rush into one end of the hall, stained with nuclear-bright effluent as if caught in an explosion, and attempt communication with some alien music of the spheres. If World Parliament was the Pontificate, then this is the Catholic proletariat looking for guidance, if not salvation. As in the menagerie of Orchestral Finalists, this scene reminded me of Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility Of An Island, a dystopian sci-fi work where futuristic humans at different stages of their evolution are reduced to bestial communication. And bestial it is, as the company is visited by a camel, greeted in ecstasy but once again moderated with the bizarre, prosaic episode of having its hooves shined and then being fed alcohol.

It is almost impossible to tell what is being communicated - a fact built in to the dramatic approach of this staging - with the lo-fi approach extending the the use of hand held instruments (literally bells and whistles). Additionally the singers act out stymied interaction with a soloist with a radio set, Vedically transformed from the camel who has keeled over. With no conclusion to these transactions, there is a sense of wonder and sorrow at the close. A laconic trio of instruments, the Basset-Horn Trio, orbit the soloist like planets before the chorus move out into the hall to sing an epilogue in the form of a sextet echoing the closing of a Bach passion. With the company's actors embedded in the audience in yogic poses, it's impossible to know where to ground one's sense. My experience was one of expansion, dizzyness: too remarkable for a modern post-industrial disaster, too dark for spiritual ecstasy.

Perhaps in an attempt to address this, the production ends with drinks in the first hall, an artistic decision to incorporate the Farewell, a chance to meet the performers and discuss the piece. I was grateful for the reality check, which came under yet more solar system symbolism, a large yellow light after the opera's colour, a replica of the sun such as in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (2007) or even Olafur Eliasson's Weather Project (2003) for Tate Modern (above). I felt as if I was a passive party in some Mayan benediction.

In rehearsals with our Musical Director Kathinka Pasveer I had asked about the text and meaning of the close of the opera proper. It was important to learn that the influence of The Urantia Book, Stockhausen's source text for the characters referred to in the opera had little influence on its content. The more important texts are those intoned by the tenors at the close of Michaelion, Stockhausen's self-penned lines of the principles applied to his 1968 work Aus dem sieben tagen (after he had read the teachings of Sri Aurobindo) - the need for being receptive to and relaying music already abroad. Equally, the Tibetan Book Of The Dead, intended as a guide for the Bardo (the end of one life and the beginning of the next) and a text with which Stockhausen did spend a lot of time, undoubtedly finds its own mystic, serious and alien inflection at the close. The enemy of this is the rationalising Lucifer, fruitlessly trying to impose order throughout with the persistent counting down from thirteen.

At the curtain call it was as if I were applauding everyone, including myself and those not present. I learned nothing - but here at my desk, a day later, I feel freshly sensitive to things both concrete and imaginary.

Friday, 17 August 2012

A Voice Of One Delight, Tete A Tete Opera Festival

Photo: Claire Shovelton
This evening I saw an opera being staged as part of the now familiar Tête à Tête Opera Festival, a fortnight-long showcase for new work no less intriguing, confounding and entertaining for its now being rather well established. I had come to see A Voice Of One Delight, a half-hour monodrama for solo mezzo-soprano in a production by McCaldin Arts. Such small-scale lyric dramas are the essential works of the festival, providing a coherent platform not only for composer and performer but for all involved in their production. A Voice Of One Delight was a high-calibre working example of this, a triplo espresso of poetry in music, staging and text, the title and content drawn from both the work and life's-end of the poet Shelley. As a friend of the production (full disclosure!) I would be inclined to see the best in the work. However it's always a pleasure to see one's expectations exceeded and for a multi-disciplinary project to come together with such consistency and quality.

Naturally, the unusually flamboyant coda to the life of one of the 19th century's most celebrated poets carries plenty of charge to fill out the 35 minute drama. The piece was born from a single image, Louis Edouard Fournier's The Burial Of Shelley, showing his open cremation on the beach in La Spezia where his body had been washed ashore following a naval accident. Originally a concert work by Stephen McNeff for the mezzo-soprano Clare McCaldin, this staged version has been adapted by the performer and the director Joe Austin.

The solo performer plays at least two roles, explicitly Shelley's widow Mary and his likely lover Jane Williams. Other voices, those of Williams' husband Edward, who perished with Shelley, and Byron splash into the narrative like waves. Words from all four and Shelley himself are both sung and spoken, the drama linked through in Stephen McNeff's music, the staging and video projection.

A Voice Of One Delight is not a conventional 'murder mystery'. There is a sense of cataloguing, of investigation with the stage dominated by a desk covered in scraps of paper studied and annotated by the performer. Yet this pursuit of understanding frequently dissipates. Other voices (literally, through live-mixed and pre-recorded sound design by Steve Mayo) distract, or a fragment of poetry or a journal becomes expanded in song. Throughout the opera - and this was key to my appreciation of the event - the more straightforward experience is emotional. The dry, archaeological pursuit of facts is continually dissolved. In A Voice of One Delight clarity is achieved through expression not explanation.

Photo: Claire Shovelton
For example, storage boxes line the back of the set, the archive inviting the investigation but they are more alive as symbols. Looking as if they might equally be a stack of coffins, they are most effective as a screen for Adam Young's video montage. This might be the elusive code of Linear B as a work of Shelley's. Either way, still or animated, it looks rather like the tongues of flame coiled around the beachside pyre. The papers already out and on the desk seem more like ash then letters; reading their contents into a microphone-as-a-dictaphone is instantly subsumed by the echoes of other voices and simply asserts the imperfection of memory.

The fateful voyage in the bay is replicated in a simple coup from designer Simon Kenny: a teal tablecloth (blending with the graphite grey of Clare McCaldin's dress) is pulled up and down to recreate the peaks and eddies of the sea for a toy boat (one is reminded of the Breton fisherman's prayer that JFK sat on his Oval Office desk - 'O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small'). A fan starts up to recreate the storm. If the sturm und drang of the paper being blown off the table weren't enough one has the mental image of the white peaks of the waves themselves.

For all the richness of the symbolism, A Voice Of One Delight relies on its performer to give life and coherence to the words, space and drama. Studio 2 at The Riverside favoured Clare McCaldin's strong recital pedigree and the chamber concert origins of Stephen McNeff's music with a dry-but-not-dead acoustic (not to mention the silent, absorbed audience). A carefully controlled sung line worked well with spoken dialogue (in two languages, English and Italian). Crucially, the staging had been worked out in conjunction with the choreographer Petra Söör. Careful, seamless transition emerges as key to the piece both from one part of the space to another and between characters. Clare McCaldin's gesture and movement is supple and measured with clear distinction in character between episodes. In this she was helped by the dramatically aware accompaniment of Elizabeth Burgess (playing a piano reduction of the score). The music requires as much care in its transition, moving in and out of focus, as the staging.

I went to see A Voice Of One Delight on consecutive nights, its two well-attended performances at the festival. I was struck that I had an identical experience on the second night to that of the first. Naturally, on a professional level this is testament to the consistency of the performance.

More to the point it gives an indication of what the work is trying to achieve. There is no revelation or catharsis in this work. Instead we are invited into the natural swell of the experience of Shelley's 'Pisian circle' of friends, but with the twin buoys of the poets' metaphors and the bare contemporaneous facts left intact, unexplained. It's a rare sort of work that presents a mystery that opens itself yet retains its mystique.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Recording Performance Digitally

This is an extract from a previous blogpost. It concerns issues surrounding ensemble artists collecting and using digital media and the wider understanding of its availability and use. It also touches on its disposability.

'The New Pact'

The one unmentioned issue here is the sensitive one concerning copyright. By this I mean discussion about both capturing an artist's work and, a wider point, whether a necessarily ephemeral, acoustic art can bear digital recording and dissemination. My view, always contingent on the state of the technology, is similarly twofold: that the ubiquity of devices and platforms for its dissemination makes it difficult to resist; and, consequently, that that ubiquity changes the manner in which people talk to and about one another, increasingly incorporating digital media as part of the vernacular.
Live performance is precious, unique, and should be protected. The law dictates that recorded performances are the property of the artist and this should be respected (in particular, artists should be able to rehearse without having to worry that errors, experimentation or necessarily half-formed performing is being captured). However, the embattled rigour with which performers go about defence of this right labours in the face not only of the overwhelming ease of recording and the common informality of its exchange but also the usefulness for the artists themselves. My professional website is peppered with useful pictures, sound and video clips found freely across the internet which give a much more substantial example of the sort of work that I do. Very little of it actually reproduces my voice itself, in isolation. I can pick and choose what I show. Most of the material is of such little interest to anyone that it might as well not be there at all - like I mentioned, it has likely been uploaded for storage or archive rather than active sharing. I'm not advocating the blanket acceptance of recording. Artists should always be consulted about the capture of their work and image, not only as a legal necessity but also as a courtesy. What artists would do well to recognise is the changing attitude not only of the audience but also of the public. Talent shows, like The Voice, may seem irrelevant artistically or professionally but it does provide clues as to the sea change in both the market and the way art is discussed: the audience for digital media is vast but the content is as disposable as the conversation that surrounds it. The artist remains distinct and intact.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Singing Entrepreneur Forum Day 2

This Saturday I attended The Singing Entrepreneur Forum's second day of conference, under the umbrella of the Tete-A-Tete Opera Festival. The forum had been convened by working singers Darren Abrahams and Arlene Rolph with the intention of opening a discussion about the business of being a singer. The first day (I did not attend) was given over to singers discussing their work and how they define their success. This second day gave the (predominantly singing) audience the opportunity to meet administrative figures of the industry.


In the above photo, Darren is introducing the panel. The discussion chaired by former Royal Opera supremo Genista McIntosh addressed a number of issues: what's really being looked for in an audition; does blacklisting happen following audition; do you need a manager. Perhaps wary of professional indiscretion in a public arena, there wasn't quite the anecdotal exchange that would have informed the audience and humanised the panel most effectively. However they did make it explicit that their role is to employ singers rather than exclude them - a positive distinction.

After lunch Darren and Arlene led an open discussion about four stages of the career path: Training; Starting as a professional; Maintaining the career path; and Diversifying the career. The format allowed us to meet up and speak with one another. Apart from airing our concerns and offering our own opinions and solutions, it also gave us a chance to meet one another, clearly an issue that Darren feels strongly about.

Indeed, one of the great virtues of this experimental, unprecedented conference was discovering that we - a group of self-employed, necessarily (if possibly in-denial) entrepreneurs - need not work in isolation from one another. There is clearly a bit of a patchwork of information about working as a singer - an opera singer, in fact - starting with an industry-benighted approach in the conservatoires. Yet the wealth of individual experience is a huge resource of information and support. Furthermore, the ongoing conversation is necessitated by the need to disperse myths that aggregate because of the disparate nature of singers and singing.

The very fact that such an event is happening is heartening. It recognises the insecurity that even the best among us experience and offers the reassurance that not only are we not alone but that there are practical steps and solutions to issues both imagined and real. Anyone who attended the conference and who might have forgotten are encouraged to download the post-forum questionnaire and provide Darren and Arlene with the feedback which will give future events greater focus.

UPDATE: One of the speakers of day 1, tenor Christopher Gillett, has published his talk on his blog.