Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Morgen und Abend, Haas

I went to see Georg Friedrich Haas' new opera Morgen und Abend this week. I was wound into its cocoon of glissando-woven harmonies and felt a little mesmerised by it all. What remained in my memory were technical things from production and performers: how minimal design means that set-projected surtitles really can work; the staging working hand in glove with the premise (a single light making the same elliptical traverse as the sun during the day - just because you know where it's going when it sets out doesn't diminish it's tension necessarily); the unimpeachable singing of Christoph Pohl trumping all other doubts and delights.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Rough for Opera #13, Cockpit Theatre

Rough for Opera: three operatic extracts in an early state of development. As ever.

The Death of Kodak is presented in blackout so that creator Ed Baxter could flash a graphic score image in the faces of members of the Resonance Radio Orchestra - the retina-branding image forms the basis for the improvised sound world that follows. There was a huge palette of sound from this sophisticated ensemble which ravished the ear in the manner of mature Portishead and with organic instrumental stylings that recalled early 1970s Miles Davis or the great psychic canvases of Pink Floyd.

On top of this Richard Scott and Rodney Clarke recited a distended libretto of information within a 'downstage' space defined by hi-vis ropes. The drama came from the assumption of the information by the singers who declaimed with poise and portence.

Returns had the same priority, giving a concert performance of James Cave's score. As one of the performers pointed out, the music offered overwhelming dramatic impetus, so the augur for a staging in due course is good. Again the text was indistinct but the emotional freight of the work was, by virtue of the performance of both instrumental ensemble and singers, undeniably strong.

After the break, Acceptance Speech was an opposite sort of experience from the first half. Helen Noir's observation-conflagration of the cute, comic and bathetic vignettes that one is familiar with from awards ceremonies was very entertaining. A multimedia, multidisciplinary theatre piece, the ambition of the work may have overloaded the performers (operating lighting and sound whilst in character) but again promises much for an expanded version. It was good to see the unique, confident La John Joseph again (in rather different circumstances).

Q&As were handled by Prof. Paul Barker. The evening was introduced by Second Movement's Nicholas Chalmers. It's worth noting that for all that Rough for Opera is a testing ground for ideas it can also be, as it was last night, entertaining and rather fulfilling.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Unpicking the 'price' of an opera ticket

This morning's catalytic comment was fairly typical - a throwaway presumption of the exorbitant cost of an opera ticket on BBC Radio 4's Today programme "we haven't even talked... about the Royal Opera House - you need a mortgage for those tickets".

(If you want to hear the full discussion, concerning the price of theatre tickets in London compared to prices of the same shows in the provinces listen here from 1hr 23mins.)

Just a few things to offer here. First, casual comments of this type from people in the media are one of the most pungent ways of re-inforcing the idea that opera tickets are all highly expensive. Opera tickets are not all highly expensive. Many (not 'some', many) are between £10 and £30. You can read a digest of prices at this useful (and virally popular) blogpost.

But the issue is, inevitably, more complicated than a straightforward comparison of basic cost. So:

Secondly, the low cost should be seen in the context of 'sitting about 400 miles away' (to use further illustrative hyperbole concerning the distance from a cheaper seat to the stage from the same item on today's Today programme).

The unique feature of opera is that it is rendered acoustically. The audience hears unmediated orchestral playing and singing. One of the marvels of good operatic singing is that it can be heard clearly and with fine emotional definition, even from a great distance.

To re-iterate: it may be more difficult to see a production from the back of an auditorium than from the front - it is not more difficult to hear. Moreover it is wonderful to hear fine, emotionally defined singing (particularly quiet singing) in the same acoustic space at whatever distance from the performer.

Thirdly, in order to retain public investment alongside other theatres producing commercially self-sustaining musicals, opera must demonstrate it is different. Part of this is masquerading as 'high art'. This comes with connotations of being difficult to understand; sitting at the top of a number of tiers of understanding. Easy shorthand for complexity in a market is value, so 'difficult to understand' may be seen as 'expensive'. This usefully succinct blogpost makes clear the irony that, "opera must look expensive to qualify for the funding that keeps it cheap."

Consequently other parts of the operatic experience - food and drink served in bars, what to wear - acquire a sense of being difficult to understand. As the art itself appears to have a 'code' that needs be worked out, so does the front of house refreshment and social requirement (i.e. 'dress code').

Ironically, this appearance of 'code' can make opera all the more appealing. Many people go to see and opera as a treat, precisely because of the connotation of exclusivity*. In this country such a transaction is typically bound up with notions of entitlement and class. Class distinction is also the natural breeding ground of the idea of 'code'.

One might also have a look at a simple but effective project that has tackled the issue of a 'code' of exclusivity: #LastNightAtTheMet is a fashion blog that takes photos (right) of those attending the Metropolitan Opera. The self-confident, class-blind audience clearly dress for an evening out: within their own parameters of style and comfort; without subscribing to the awkward poles of 'expectation' or political point-making.

Finally a further point on conversational shorthand concerning opera. Just as 'black tie' (dinner suit, white shirt, black bow tie) is a shorthand for operatic dressing up, so the resonant sound of a trained singer's voice is a shorthand for opera. This may be why the media so often refer to crossover singers as 'opera singers'. It's about the basic sound. It's not a precis of the performer's repertoire, experience or circuit (though the crossover market thrives on exploiting that perception).

Hard-working operatic performers should continue to resist lazy categorisation and blanket generalisation of their work. We should also bear in mind the deeper-rooted, difficult to untangle reasons why these easily-exploited misapprehensions exist.

*This has been reinforced in recent blockbuster films: Mission: Impossible 5 and Quantum of Solace both feature sequences shot in opera houses as shorthand to colour the social standing of characters.

Thursday, 10 September 2015

Thousand Furs, Re:Sound Music Theatre, Tete a Tete Opera Festival

August is a very strong month for Fringe opera in London. At this year's typically stuffed Tete-a-Tete Opera Festival I managed to get to see Re:Sound's Thousand Furs. Cinderella with a prologue might be the best way to describe it. At one level this remarkable, taught music theatre piece left me a little disappointed. The possibility of exploring a medieval-period incest storyline was as fascinating as it was alarming. Perhaps this is the point - that the subsequent road trip and fantasy is consequent on the unconscionable but not impossible domestic situation that the Cinderella character flees.

One of Re:Sound's calling cards is the use of instruments on stage, characters not only singing their roles but also playing. Michael Betteridge's score works this in tentatively, opening with a capella ensemble singing. I liked this approach. There's no sense of a 'pit band', no musicians separated from the diegesis. When the performers did come to play, the natural anxiety I was expecting to have to deal with - playing of an inferior standard to the singing, or clunky gear changes between characterisation and playing - didn't happen. The playing was consistently of as high a standard as the singing, sometimes on two instruments.

The costuming and set were a continually manipulated arrangement of screens and primary colours on white, little paraphernalia but a continual eddy of motion. It's a rich hour of music theatre, well rehearsed and executed with good humour and quiet virtuosity. I wish more of what I saw held to these qualities.

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Rough For Opera #12, Cockpit Theatre

The Cockpit Theatre
home of Rough for Opera
Second Movement have been producing Rough for Opera try-out evenings for operatic works-in-progress for a few years now. It's a valuable platform for the creative team behind the extracts on show. Not only do they get the chance to try their work out in a performance context but the Second Movement team also host a Q&A session immediately afterwards. This is designed for feedback: the teams can not only find out what worked but also what the audience experience was.

Does that sound a bit obvious, 'what the audience experience was'? Here's the fun thing about Rough for Opera. Because the work on show is unfinished, or shown in part - or even an experiment in just trying one element of an operatic performance - the audience may have a genuinely unique experience to share in return. This might even bypass the intentions of the creative team, a view racing ahead of their own peculiar fork in the compositional road. Rough for Opera is not an open rehearsal where one assumes the performance is incomplete. Rather, the assumption that the performance is fulfilling its potential to date means that the audience share the same creative junction as the artists.

Last night we saw three pieces. Richard Dodwell and Josh Spear's He/Himselfie was less an opera than a multimedia and performance-artwork exploring male identity and stereotyping through some brave, expressionist-confessional theatre. Aaron Holloway-Nahum and Peter Jones' The Strange Last Voyage of Donald Crowhurst attempted a treatment of the fascinating story of Crowhurst's participation in the Sunday Times Golden Globe Race, a seafaring circumnavigation exercise that goes awry. Finally we saw a triptych of compositions for the polished chamber group The Hermes Experiment (double bass, clarinet, harp, soprano) in which three composers' settings of metaphysical poetry were glued together with graphic score performances.

The Hermes Experiment rehearse in the Cockpit Theatre for Rough for Opera
Reporting on the content and quality of the performances is somewhat beside the point of the evening, as it's the experience and exchanges in the live situation that are most valuable. That said, it was terrific to watch and hear a high level of skill and commitment in the theatre, particularly the highly polished playing of the Riot Ensemble (for Holloway-Nahum) and The Hermes Experiment.

Q&As after each event were nice and brisk under the compering of Second Movement artistic director Nicholas Chalmers: though answers could be opaque, the value of having an exchange at all in a supportive forum such as this trumps all else. Rough for Opera is open to the public. It's cheap, surprising and earnest. The next one is 3 November.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Open Space Opera Conference with Improbable Theatre

What Are We Going To Do About Opera?

It was a beautifully sunny summer's day. So What Are We Going To Do About Opera? seemed like it might be a rather pessimistic title for a weekend's discussion about the industry. Does opera really need digging out of a hole, or some sort of loving, American style 'intervention'?

Well, not really. Most of the discussion at this event, hosted by Improbable Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, seemed really rather positive - if seasoned with the sanguine understanding that money and popular interest are in limited supply.

There was no sense of doom or genuine crisis in the industry. Many people came to see if they could find like-minded others with whom to get their ideas off the ground. This was not a shoulder-to-cry-on marketplace. Instead it turned out to be a forum of activity for those wanting to try out ideas and learn something about the directions in which the nature of opera in a modern society and with new technology might be headed.

There was room for those who were Disgruntled (Improbable's title for this series of conferences is 'Devoted & Disgruntled') to ask awkward questions. Two of the popular sessions convened over the weekend concerned the legacy of Regietheater, the influence of direction on the development of operatic production and issues surrounding English National Opera. These discussions and most of the others produced reports which have been submitted online at the website Improbable have curated about the event. You can read them here - or for a less formal view, just have a look at the Twitter activity of those attending, using the hashtag #DDOpera.

What Are We Going To Do About Opera?


My own experience took in discussion of mediated performances: the use of amplified/relayed sound and video. Convened by a pair of directors working in these media it was nice to hear that their intent was to use technology to assist the narrative of opera rather than using media for novelty's sake.

Indeed, narrative was a term I heard a fair bit during the weekend. Often people would default to narrative as a priority in trying to get productions of work both old and new off the ground.

I took part in a discussion about audiences - a big subject in which we only skirted the issue of front of house and extra-auditorium management.

The following day I heard discussion about the neglect of practitioners entering the profession in middle age. Opportunities for a leg up in the profession are heavily concentrated on young people (an 'emerging artist' is a clear euphemism for someone in their twenties) and there are difficult issues of sexism in opera too, largely as these are often found written into the repertory.

From there I heard the second part of a discussion about new work and some of the fudges, compromises and half-truths that are used to get new work written, performed and attended.

Finally there was a discussion on the nature of operatic film as a stand-alone genre. Between these discussions I had some informative, off-the-record chats about the nature of acoustics. One person was a researcher for a site-specific company that predicates its work on the available spaces (both internal and external). There was also a very interesting couple who work on the acoustic of dedicated performance spaces, work that often includes making them flexible for the use of different sorts of events, let alone different sorts of opera.

The weekend was organised using Open Space principles that allowed people to dictate the agenda themselves. This was managed very well by Improbable's Phelim McDermott who managed to be good humoured and inclusive; there were also valuable contributions from the Royal Opera's front of house staff and a months-old baby who, true to the sense of the conference, was much more interested in grinning than crying!

It was a peculiar weekend to have such an event as there were no fewer than four major house first nights on the Saturday, let alone the usual diaspora of miscellaneous operatic performances throughout the UK. It is worth remembering that for all our plan-hatching there were several hundred practitioners both in London and further afield who were just getting on with the job.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

How can opera survive in the 21st Century?

I'm trying to think over this tremendously wide subject ahead of a conference hosted at the Royal Opera House on 6 & 7 June. In preparation I've been reading John Culshaw's extraordinary reminiscence of recording Wagner's Ring Cycle for Decca in the 1960s, Ring Resounding.

I pursued this text for two reasons. Firstly, the recording was hailed at the time as a significant technological achievement. Culshaw and his colleagues took advantage of the new standard LP record and the even more novel stereo recording technique to capture drama to their recording. Secondly, Wagner's score has all the theatrical drama written into it. It was Culshaw's intention to realise Wagner's drama through faithful realisation of the score, rather than making a record of a theatrical production of the opera (a useful distinction for further unpicking).

Ring Resounding prompts many tributaries of discussion. It also has some useful opinions. I have decided to quote this beautifully composed paragraph in the epilogue (or 'Coda', as he calls it) in full as it seems so pertinent today.
We remain faithful to outdated techniques and methods because  they are a sentimental part of our past. We can all of us spot the flaws in a new and challenging technique, and are usually glad to dismiss it because of them. So far, attempts to blend the worlds of the cinema and the theatre have failed, and any sort of electrical amplification for voices or orchestra is considered an outrageous interference by technology... But if the audience for opera in general and Wagner in particular is to grow, and if that audience is to make contact with the drama in any serious sense, the time is coming when technology must play a greater part at the cost of a few sacred artistic cows. Just as the conductor is no longer in charge of every aspect of a recording session but is none the less able to create a more accurate and prepared realization of his wishes because of the facilities provided for him, so I believe that the opera theatre of the future  will be under the control of men who conceive opera in terms of an expanding communication. In that direction there is at the very least a hope of survival; in the other, the tomb is waiting. Opera as a social event, or as a vehicle for a single star, may not even survive the twentieth century*, any more than the court theatres survived the nineteenth: simple economics and the expansion of private forms of communication like records and television will see to that. The survival of an art form depends partly on its relevance to any given era, and partly on its adaptability in terms of communication. With a few distinguished exceptions, we still approach the presentation of opera with the mentality of the mid-nineteenth century; and when anyone trues to put it effectively where it belongs, which is before the eyes and ears of our own younger generation in a manner that is attuned and attractive to that generation, the howls of alarm from the elders of the critical establishment can be heard the length and breadth of Europe.
John Culshaw Ring Resounding (Martin Secker and Warburg, 1967, p261-262)

Here is Humphrey Burton's complete documentary of recording Götterdämmerung as part of the Solti/Decca Ring, 'The Golden Ring' (1964)


(* NB - 'Opera as social event' may well have survived  the 20th c., but only by changing the parameters of what the public's expectation of opera is. This may be a 'crossover' discussion issue)

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Opera: telescoping with the voice

from roh.org.uk
I went to see - and hear - the final performance of Szymanowski's King Roger at the Royal Opera House last night. I liked it. The music is colourful, just this side of lurid. The orchestra spills out into the side boxes (the harps) and there's an off-stage organ, not to mention the chorus of course.

That's not to say that the music is an unremitting blaze of orgiastic post-romanticism. On the contrary, among the best moments of the opera are the hushed opening chorus, rendered in a theatrically thrilling blackout (the conductor wearing temporary pale sleeve covers so that the musicians could see his beat), the Shepherd's description of his faith - and the King's wife's reaction to that - and the King's tortured self-examination in the second Act.

I also saw the production on a laptop at the weekend, streamed by the Royal Opera. For all the impressive spectacle and clarity of relayed sound it was no match for hearing the performance in the theatre.

It made me think about the recent trends for opera: the fad for immersive, site-specific and general close-proximity performance; the successful culture of cinema or live stream relay. These are trends that are supported by an audience's interest in getting close to the performers and all but coming into direct contact with their experience as they essay it in action and song on the stage.

I considered my encounter with this performance of King Roger in relation to these trends. For all that opera productions happen in a space that might seat up to 2,000 people separated from the stage by an orchestral pit, it's the inimitable quality of the (singing) voice that brings the audience into immediate, intimate contact with a performer - or character. Even if you're 70m away at the back of the Amphitheatre (I often am!) the nature of good singing means that you don't have to use the equivalent of opera glasses to hear the singing. Good singing telescopes that divide.

One of the great misconceptions about opera is that it's loud. Well, it often is, as it was in various dramatic or damascene junctions of King Roger. However, the great asset of operatic performance is its ability to be just as persuasive, affecting and, yes, dramatic, through performers reaching across a distance with projection and clarity. Furthermore, it's a metaphor in itself.

To hear simple emotions or truths uttered within the context of a grand spectacle can be a perplexing but wonderful juxtaposition of perspectives on a lyric theatre stage. However beautiful the music or the stage production, mediated relay can only negate it.

Friday, 15 May 2015

Betrayal, I Fagiolini, Village Underground

Photo: The Independent
I wanted to wait and see the live stream of I Fagiolini's latest project - Betrayal, a dramatised performance of 16th century Venetian composer Carlo Gesualdo's exotic, tortured madrigals - before trying to pin down my experience of it.

I first saw the performance live in preview. Director John La Bouchardière has created an operatic experience for a promenading audience at Shoreditch's Village Underground. Well, at least it seems like an opera on cursory reflection - the dramatised performance organises the sequence of madrigals into a narrative with each of the singers acting in tandem with a dancer.

The story is told in flashback. Audience tickets are invitations to a crime scene. The front of house staff are (in-character) over-officious authoritarian figures, issuing blue-beamed flashlights and demands for hush. The floor is covered in evidence markers and body outlines. The introduction of the singers (who just start singing as they approach these areas) suggests that they are mourning in the present.

But then the dancers engage and re-enactment begins. Seeing the production again via the live stream I was reminded of my fascination at how the sense of the performance quickly shifts from madrigal performance to full-on operatic drama with the introduction of a partner for the singers.

At once we move from a conventional performance to something with more focus and dramatic credibility. Each of the six singer-dancer duos form a discursive relationship; the body language manages not only the language barrier but also the transposition of the 16th century text into a crime scene vernacular (even if our own experience of that 'vernacular' is TV shows!).

from the Guardian/YouTube live stream
The live stream cannot give the impression of the proximity of the performers (and of course it can't re-create the ensemble sound in the space) but what it does give is the impression of watching the whole thing on CCTV, complete with remote-operation zoom. Being able to cut between the six fixed positions helps this as if jumping in on certain actions - but watching for any length of time does test this suspension of credibility.

I wanted to wait and see what it looked like on screen as site-specific/immersive theatre and cinema relay are often talked about as growth trends in presenting opera nowadays.

My experience as a live audience member was rather isolated, compared to immersive experiences with other companies (Opera Up Close or even Secret Cinema). The performances were essentially introverted, ruminative, brought to life only with their dancing counterparts. The dancers were, nonetheless, distinct, even spectral figures; or even like Chris' perpetually reincarnating wife in Tarkovsky's Solaris - are they actually there?

As for the stream, the restricted movement of the cameras streaming to my laptop rather than a public auditorium (not to mention my having seen it play out once already!) meant that this experience was also somewhat unengaging. I think this was probably more of an issue with there being six separate narratives, negating conventional direction. The stream was a fun counterpart to having seen the show live first and couldn't recreate it in the same way that (now conventional) opera relay does.

Perhaps I need to make clear that I was, by the way, seriously impressed with the capability of the technology to capture a coherent performance that one can see and hear clearly given the low light and diaspora of the ensemble. I was awed by the ensemble of the performers of I Fagiolini themselves, rendering the taxing polyphony, one to a part, without recourse to conductor or pitch corrector... not to mention singing beautifully without a break for over an hour.

Above all I was utterly absorbed by the dancers, ignorance of whose discipline was no barrier to comprehension or fascination on my part. If there's one idea that one might take from this successful staging experiment then it's that cross-discipline work really comes off if it's in the service of illuminating the drama.

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Xerxes, Hampstead Garden Opera

Tonight I saw Hampstead Garden Opera's production of Handel's Xerxes (Serse in Italian). Xerxes struggled when it was first heard almost 300 years ago. It broke the opera seria mould by trying some humour and going easy on the da capo (repeated opening section) aria format... and that novelty consigned it to obscurity. Its appeal was revived through Nicholas Hytner's production for ENO in the mid-1980s and Hytner's translation is that used in this unfussy production by Andrew Davidson, with crisp, modern design by Maira Vazeou.

Indeed the comedy in Xerxes is a little awkward, with incongruity interpolated into a more conventional love, er, tetrahedron. Davidson gives Chris Webb (Elviro) a long leash and a playful prop & costume box to get the audience onside, and it works. Meanwhile there is a some nice singing and also one particularly fine theatrical coup during Freya Jacklin (Amastris)'s final aria courtesy of Jess Glaisher's solipsistic lighting design. The music is fluid but secure under the direction of Richard Hetherington with the notable continuo cello contribution of Kate Conway, whose flawless intonation and mobile but never-undernourished sound was the bedrock of a good performance of the opera.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Into The Little Hill, Shadwell Opera, Limehouse

I was so glad to have caught Shadwell Opera's final performance of George Benjamin's chamber opera Into The Little Hill. The opera is - as Shadwell Opera's director James Furness told us in an introduction - a re-working of the Pied Piper tale performed by two singers with a 14-piece chamber orchestra. Having the instrumentalists arranged around the circular stage area gave one the opportunity to really focus on the sounds: there's a lovely extremity of timbre with misty low woodwind (baritonal clarinet & flute) set against the pontilism of mandolin, banjo and cymbalon. So it was with the singers, Emily Vale (crisp, high soprano) & Jess Dandy whose svelte contralto characterised the smooth-talking of both the scheming Minister and his wife.

I was taken in by the storytelling of the piece, the stylised design and stage movement, and the above-average music-making quickly. It's a good piece, seductive and sorrowful, and bears a moral blade (particularly pertinent in this pre-election period). Finnegan Downie Dear conducted a measured performance with super dynamic contrast.

Much more interesting to me were the circumstances of the performance. The company had brought this production to the John Scurr Community Centre in Limehouse, one stop down the DLR from the company's namesake station, to bring it to 'those who wouldn't normally have access to opera performances'. The other  venues were St. Paul's, Bow and Southern Grove Community Centre.

Now, I can't say how many local people came to hear the performance, and I wouldn't presume to guess the background of the audience, numbering around a dozen. However, being in this space in a residential cul-de-sac of Tower Hamlets really focussed my attention as a member of the audience. Not the proximity of the performers, not the subject matter (a unconcealed investigation of anti-immigration) but simply having the vernacular and conventions of a theatrical opera performance delivered, unmediated, to a space to which one might assume such things are alien.

I was in the audience but concerned with whether the performance was catering for all the audience. Odd. In other words, I felt pressed to examine how different I might be from the people sitting around me. Then, as the performance progressed, the show itself pulled my attention to it, away from the present realism of of the room and into the momentum of the fable.

This is a testament to the conviction of the performers, of course. It's also the value of and reason for live performance. It's not necessary to have had identical experiences to those about you. Yet the transference-like process (to co-opt a psychiatric term) of being aware of your indiviual differences to becoming part of a communal audience is as valuable a part of the theatrical experience as anything delivered by the show itself. I went along to catch a show offered for specific audience based on a specific criteria. The quality of the show and its performance meant that it superceded this predicate and became the reason for anyone to see it. That's a powerful thing for those of us working in lyric theatre to recognise.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

10 Best things for Opera (in the UK) in the 21st century

Here's a recent article from Opera Pulse, an American journal concerning opera. Evan McCormack's piece offers a list of the 10 'best things' to happen to opera so far this century. It's a bit of fun and, moreover, it strikes a celebratory note, looking forward to the future of the artform.

Is it the same in the UK?

Well, let's have a look.

10. Audition notice sites (like YAPTracker)

It's tricky to find an agent who will find you work. However, in the newly-connected 21st century, it's possible to act effectively for yourself. In the UK, audition notice aggregators (such as Audition Oracle, right, or The Opera Stage) bring audition notices to one place and provide a place for employers to find the singers they need.

9. Composer-in-residence programmes

This is a good way of preparing the early ground for point no. 3, the provision of new work (not to mention 6, the provision of new artists). Composing an opera is no sideline however and this doesn't seem to be an established situation of note.

8. Live relays

An unarguable success in its own right. These one-off simultaneous relays in the cinema of opera productions provide accessibility and an alternative to the auditorium which is often held up as a cultural barrier to attending opera in person. It demonstrates that the content of opera - the music, the spectacle and the stories - still has overwhelming appeal.

In the UK cinemas put on relays from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, The Royal Opera, English National Opera and Glyndebourne. The latter along with many European houses stream certain shows live for anyone to watch with a computer and a reliable broadband connection.

Crucially it appears that there is no drop-off in attendance at any of these institutions as a result of this service being made available. A top 3 'best thing' for me.

7. Modern stage technology

Technology accounts for half of the 'innovations' of this list as it's reliable, ubiquitous and cheap. Well, unlike the peripheral concerns of operatic productions, new stage technology may not be ubiquitous or cheap. However its increasing reliability means that directors and designers are able to open up the possibilities of their productions. The most obvious example of this is probably Robert Lepage's recent Ring Cycle for the Metropolitan Opera.



In the UK, I was deeply impressed by Kasper Holten's Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera where an integrated trio of designers (video, set and lighting) project the set design of each scene directly onto an anonymous looking permanent set (above, from the foyer exhibition 'Making Don Giovanni'). There's a piece on the process here.

The key to all these new ideas is that they support the production, rather than subsume it. At grassroots level, we are seeing technology used to improve accessibility through the projection of surtitles for operas performed in a language other than English (Fulham Opera has a good consistent record of doing this).

6. Performance centres or 'hubs'

Rather like the issue of composers in residence, specific high-level operatic performance centres still mean conservatoires, the National Opera Studio and the dedicated programmes of the two main London companies.

However, for all the 'Premier League' culture of importing singers from abroad there is still plenty of company building going on at all levels. Moreover, the importance of education programmes to build audiences as well as broaden the experiential base of the company artists is taken seriously now (and not just to tick social compliance boxes for central funding assistance).

5. Small companies

Small production companies have flourished in the past decade and there are two reasons. The first is the demands of circumstance: a mixture of social trend - i.e. the interest in artisanal production - and austerity-coerced DIY.

Moreover, and this is pertinent for a piece about opera in a new century, there seems to be a need to update. The great success here has been Opera Up Close who have offered a portfolio of innovations. Principal among them is the re-telling of the story of the opera in a modern vernacular, both in language and topography: a Boheme, in modern English, performed on location in an upstairs theatre and the bar(/Café Momus) below and referencing contemporary London outside (right).

4. Modern fundraising

This means crowdsourced project funding. Crowdfunding (in its popular contracted form) is actually rather tricky for performance art. Successful crowdfunding models tend to offer physical product that has unlimited reproduction potential and that can be given as an incentive for support. Consequently it tends to be easier to raise money for recording music - and then to offer a CD or DVD as incentive - than it can be to fund a production which will be finite, ephemeral... and, worst of all, yet to be fleshed out or critically acclaimed.

In short, you could be backing a turkey, bad art. Even if you aren't, most crowdfunding platforms don't give the option or even allow equity in the production to be offered as an incentive, so even if a potential backer thought they could support the new Mamma Mia, there'd be no return on wild, unlimited future success.

Furthermore the Arts Council of England demand that all avenues for funding have been investigated before they will consider applications for awards. This now includes crowdfunding, not least as they suggest it is a method of audience building. This brings us to the final caveat with crowdfunding, which is that if a company's profile is not high then the supporters will almost all be friends & family. Crowdfunding doesn't build audience - it leans heavily on the existing one. Even if an enterprising company has built up a strong distribution base with good social media interaction (for all its promises, crowdfunding platforms do not fulfill this function) then the lack of manifest product and no hope of investment return means that crowdfunding for even a medium-sized company relies on pure altruism.

Crowdfunding is a growth area, not least because of its convenience of processes and database management, but more innovation in how to market performance art is needed before this can become a viable option of funding work.

3. New opera

My point about crowdfunding might extrapolate to McCormack's here - it's difficult to convince people to fund new work, especially when the artform is predicated on a small, much-loved repertory (imagine if the pop industry was basically about cover versions!).

via bbc.co.uk
We have heard the music of Thomas Ades and Nico Muhly over here at major houses. I have really enjoyed new operas by Gerald Barry (The Importance of Being Earnest, right) and George Benjamin (Written on Skin) in the last year, not to mention the success of established composers with Birtwistle's Minotaur and Peter Maxwell Davies' Kommilitonen! at the Royal Academy of Music in the past five. There is a movement towards community opera and opera for young people, particularly led by the education department of Glyndebourne. As I write this major new work is in production with English National Opera and the Royal Opera have announced a major new work by Georg Friedrich Haas in their 2015-2016 season launch. In London Tete a Tete Opera provides a tremendous, festival-style platform for new and experimental work, as does the knowingly-named Grimeborn based in Dalston.

Clearly new work is considered important and is being produced. My concern (opinion) is that composers feel a compulsion to distinguish their work from the established repertory by making greater demands on the increasingly well-trained and professional singers. Pushing the extremities of vocal possibility is not the same as giving a competent vocal artist the means to pursue the artistic goals of composition fruitfully. The culture for new work is admirably positive; it probably needs to develop and maintain a basis for constructive criticism alongside it.

2. Crossover

This is one issue where I disagree with McCormack. His subtitle for this bit is 'Broadway, Pop-Culture and Primetime Collaboration' and how working across genres and with alternative artists can help opera 'spread its wings'.

Well the experience of those who work in opera in this country is not this. 'Collaboration' usually turns out to be dilution, diminution or misrepresentation. It's a really treacherous subject as the popular music industry has become adept at exploiting the grey margins of generic cultural subsets to sell itself and label the operatic industry as conservative.

I'd offer this: the image accompanying this section in McCormack's piece has performers inevitably using microphones. All popular singing is necessarily mediated in this way. The basis for opera is that it is not mediated at all. It's power is that it is an immediate art (no, I know it's not as simple as that but it's a useful reference point).

Opera has had success in re-inventing itself as a storytelling medium through the work of smaller companies, such as Opera Up Close (see above) and generic crossover helps sell the tunes. But this only offers a dusting off of the content of opera. Education is the next and steeper step of the process, the only way in which the physical immediacy of the acoustic art of opera can get a fair hearing away from the ulterior-motive marketplace.

1. The internet

In all walks of life the internet is now intrinsic. The only time that the internet has no impact on an operatic production is during the performance itself (though one supposes it's only a matter of time before we are offered a production whose content is improvised, live, around feeds of outside information).

One thing. The rise of small companies is a useful direct analogy for the integration of the internet with opera in the 21st century. Just as wanting to revisit the basic principles of opera production away from the industrial operation of large companies has helped to midwife artisanal (or 'bijou') opera, so some may look for respite from the ubiquity of technology in the bare essentials of opera - the tenets after which this blog is named, for example. This is - absolutely - not to say that opera in the 21st century may produce those who run to a bare performance ghetto in rejection of what the new century has to offer. Rather that the simplicity of acoustic lyric theatre suddenly has a renewed perspective in an otherwise integrated society.

It's not difficult to see the parallel between turning off a smartphone for two hours of theatre and 'turning off' your day-to-day concerns for the same.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Swanhunter, Linbury Studio Theatre


The cast of this co-production (between the theatre company The Wrong Crowd and Opera North) were pre-set as we came into the theatre: four friends in Borgen-chic jumpers and hats sitting outside tents. Both before and after the lights went down, we watched them entertaining one another with play acting. One recalls the sequence at the beginning of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient where the cartographers entertain one another around the fire in the desert. Songs and stories - you can see how this show had already got off on the right foot with this blog.

So Swanhunter seamlessly (I'll return to this word) carried on, telling the story of Lemminkäinen who travels North in search of a wife. His mother doesn't much like the idea and the surprisingly grim latter parts of the show support her scepticism. Although this is, in many respects, a show aimed at children, it doesn't patronise them. The violence of life is stylised but the stage images are dredged from surprisingly dark recesses of the imagination, not unlike Guillermo del Toro's wonderfully designed film Pan's Labyrinth. The superb lighting of Richard Howell is a part of this, as is this simple but persistently effective mini-proscenium that sits over the centre of the stage, a silhouette of mountains in equivocal perspective.

With a six-hand band including an accordion and kit drum, Jonathan Dove's orchestration allows the cast to be heard without having to shout. Yet even with succinct, oft-repeated material (this is a virtue in my opinion) the cast was properly tested. Suzanne Shakespeare's eponymous Swan is a case in point, requiring proper oxygen-thin tessitura singing, which was strung out in silver like the aqueous lighting. Adrian Dwyer's paints Lemminkäinen as a rather green hero and gets most of the laughs he plays for. All the rest of the cast bring this humour to the portence of their individual & ensemble roles, largely through considerable energy (impressive in itself - this run has including same-day matinees).

Added to all this is continuous puppeteering and a number of costume changes, often in the aforementioned tents. Most impressive of all for me though was the movement around the stage. Whether directly in character, conducting a puppet or simply moving in and out of shadows at the rear of the space, everyone maintained a purposeful tension in their movement. The lack of seams in the production keeps up the tempo and direction of the performance. Not least in this respect is the conductor, Justin Doyle, who keeps balance, pace and some tricky rhythmic passages in check throughout (there's no-where for anyone to hide in this show, on this stage and with this score). For all its abrupt, fable-like ending it's a coherent, absorbing opera, much enjoyed.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Richard Jones' winning year


It's been a good year for opera director Richard Jones. In January he was made an CBE and about 15 minutes ago he won not one but two Olivier Awards for Best New Production (Mastersingers) and Outstanding Achievement in Opera (Girl of the Golden West, Rodelinda & Mastersingers, all at English National Opera).

Read David Nice's discussion with Richard Jones during the Mastersingers production period here.

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Claire Platt's How Did It Come To This, Pheasantry


Last night I went to see Claire Platt performing her fairly new cabaret show at The Pheasantry on the King's Road. How Did It Come To This is a funny, dry, sideways glance at Claire's life and career as a soprano and latterly a voice teacher. My scant experience of cabaret across London is that the nature of such shows are often dictated by the relative proportion of chat and songs. Well, Claire speaks with great confidence and entertaining self-awareness from the very top but it is the profusion of songs and her singing which really do the talking for her. There is no abject approach to using a clear vocal technique in a cabaret situation, no hiding behind adopted styles - or the mic, for that matter, which may be idiomatically appropriate for the gig but wouldn't be necessary for clarity. Unaffected Novello-crisp English is subverted for a patter song about being Northern and Claire is not afraid of slipping into belt where the song needs it. It's a genial evening that deals lightly with the shadow of hindsight that can weigh down similar self-sourced show material. It's also a very clean show - I would have welcomed more of the risqué material that's occasionally slipped in with an allusive sleight of hand.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in investigating cabaret should look for Claire's next date as this is a remarkably polished evening's entertainment. Claire was supported at the piano by Simona Budd.

Thursday, 12 February 2015

Cross-discipline work in performing arts

Philharmonia Voices
Philharmonia Voices in Irina Brown's staging of ravel's L'Enfant et les Sortileges. Photo: Philharmonia

As singers we can find ourselves providing music for dancers. Many of us have recorded music as the soundtrack to the action of a film or even performed live during a play. However, short of the movement or dancing incorporated into an operatic production, the disciplines are often segregated.

This week I have been working (as part of an ensemble of singers, above) with a choreographer to work basic movement into a semi-staged operatic performance. The experience has been a good and artistically fruitful. However, I was interested to note my initial reluctance to embrace this part of the rehearsal process. There was a rather more fundamental rubicon than simply not wanting to pose or act out a role. After all, I am like many of my colleagues in having had a fair bit of operatic experience, an art form which is predicated on performers integrating dance, movement singing and acting.

Five minutes of head-scratching later (not a stage direction - I was thinking) and it occurred to me that the difference is the musician's reliance on the score, or the printed music. This is especially the case for the session musicians that make up the majority of London choral singers, where ability to process music from the standing start of reading off a printed sheet is valuable. So there's the issue of a prop, a distancing prosthetic (equivalent to the pseud-classical-singer microphone, but that may be another blogpost).

Moreover, there's the issue of being bound by the score. Not only are classical session singers used to interpreting sheet music quickly but we do it very accurately too, often to a fault, arguing over dynamics, the length of a rest for a breath and achieving a grumpy consensus over just how open foreign vowels should be. So in a rehearsal situation where the choreographer doesn't want to give a cut-and-dried answer to the question 'do we walk in time to the music?' there's spawning ground for mistrust, as if the individual giving direction doesn't understand how this performer works. Worse, it seems so second-nature to the singer that apparently equivocal answers suggest that an alternative-discipline director might not know what they're talking about.

In this week's rehearsal situation it quickly became apparent that the choreographer had a clear idea of what they wanted. It just didn't pertain principally to the score in front of us but rather to impulses in the narrative of the drama and the swell & texture of the music.

This may seem rather obvious. After all, the sheet music is simply the initial guide that will be rehearsed and shaped into the autonomous, nebulous artform that music is. Yet it's difficult under the (severe) constraints of time. It helps to have immediate reassurance that the person in charge understands the needs of the performer that they're rehearsing - in our case gaining the necessary familiarity and mastery of the notes on the page so that we can move on to reproducing the music without the copy.

Yet that understanding must cut both ways and that's the reason I'm spilling a thought here. An increasingly valuable facet of performing arts professionalism is exposure to the working methods of other performing disciplines.

I took part in a workshop for a new lyric-drama about two years ago and got very frustrated by the apparent lack of focus in an actor-led session. it was only later in the process that I recognised the establishing of character and impetus was structurally fundamental and that the score was a moveable feast. Even the conductor was required to suspend his indications in order to engage with the tourettish demands of ensemble character.

Similarly, for all the structural rigour of rhythm, dancing places high value on shapes and the fluidity of movement, a fact which occupies the working sense of the choreographer. At least this is what my limited but attentive observation of such a working practice identifies. This observation can be a useful discipline in itself to make the best use of time as well as to maintain professional trust between artists. I'd also argue that it's increasingly important where the 'triple threat' professionalism of music theatre is increasingly admired - and where opera is having to re-model itself anyway as the properly integrated artform it claims to be to survive the scrutiny of the modern audience.