Studio Opera in London: Grimeborn/Tête à Tête/OperaUpClose

It’s that time of year when the two London studio opera festivals go head-to-head (!), for reasons that I don’t really understand (couldn’t one of them be a little earlier…?), and had I any money I would most certainly be seriously checking both of them out. Hammersmith’s Tête à Tête festival closes this Friday, after a three-week programme, and Dalston’s Grimeborn began on Monday and runs until the 27th. The two festivals share a studio theatre setting – this is not fringe opera along the warehouse or disused town hall lines – but there are quite a number of differences between the two.

Tête à Tête flaunts its ‘laboratory’ qualities, an acknowledgement that productions are still in experimental stages, perhaps semi-formed or unpolished. It hosts a more varied programme of fragments, staged song-cycles, works-in-progress, cabaret events, along with a few ‘complete’ chamber works. It also puts on a few events in other site-specific locations around the borough. On the whole, it is very favourably skewed towards new writing, even when this is tempered by the suggestion that this isn’t necessarily the ‘final’ performance circumstances for these pieces. The festival has more of a ‘smorgasbord’ feel, with multiple short events every day, rather than nightly ‘performances’.

Grimeborn errs a lot closer to approach of the hugely successful King’s Head Theatre operas. Often full-scale, semi-canonical chamber operas are performed, adapted of course to a very intimate setting. The emphasis is on studio opera as accessible modern theatre, rather than studio opera as a dynamic musical scene to be sampled. They do stud their programme with a few new works, however, as well as the odd genre-bending song-cycle and cabaret evening.

Grimeborn has the better name, of course. Tête à Tête has the better website, merely because it does actually have a website (googling ‘grimeborn’ hauls up an impenetrable mess of Arcola Theatre archives and old reviews). Despite a good library of videos on the Tête à Tête page, I actually thing that the web presence, publicity and marketing of both festivals is quite woeful, considering their intentions. Compared to the OperaUpClose productions, whose new Don Giovanni has found an impressively strong press presence, both festivals seem oddly under-publicised (and the publicity for Tête à Tête is often really really amateurish and silly). This may be because, given the very short run (and, I suppose, small budget) of each individual project, they don’t feel like they need to tap into a wide audience base. Possibly, there are enough of the intrigued opera-curious in Hammersmith and Dalston to fill enough seats anyway. Either way, I think more could be made of these events to fulfil their potential appeal amongst disparate, non-initiate audiences – in particular, because of their healthy focus on new music, in contrast to the other canon-fixated companies bringing their endless Traviatas and Bohèmes to every corner of the city.

—> read a guardian article about all this stuff (mainly Don Giovanni) HERE <—

[I look forward to having enough money to really sample both events and give more of an informed opinion on each. For Tête à Tête especially, when attending a whole wealth of variable yet equally-priced ‘experiments’, I think some kind of discount season ticket would be good… but that might be unrealistic.]

I was, however, lucky enough to attend a preview performance of OperaUpClose‘s The Turn of the Screw at the King’s Head Theatre, Islington a little while back. It was my first experience of both the company and the venue, and my impression was mainly positive. I happen to know the work extremely well, much too well to really approach the performance as the majority of the audience would realistically approach it, but the production was still in some ways quite revelatory. The singing was awesome across the board – it was very exciting to hear such voices in such a close proximity – and it was a strange relief not to be semi-consciously double-checking surtitles with every new line. The contemporary costume worked fantastically, and the final scene – with the Governess singing Miles’s ‘Malo’ song curled up on the floor – was pretty much as devastating as it could be. It was well worth seeing, but it did present to me quite a few issues which I think companies like this must be constantly aware of. I’ll talk about these first and then discuss how The Turn of the Screw dealt with them.

The most superficially ‘controversial’ issue was that of the solo piano accompaniment replacing the original orchestral score, and I was quite happy to find that this didn’t bother me at all really, so hopefully it would’ve had even less of an impact on a newcomer to the piece. I enjoyed the stark intimacy of the pianist with relation to the singers, and found it fit the staging very appropriately. We should really be looking at the migration of operas to teeny studios in terms of new potentials, though, not just damage-limitation (or trying to ‘preserve’ as much of the opera house as possible whilst inhabiting a less alienating setting). The ‘gap’ that the sparser accompaniment texture might reasonably leave should be more than compensated for by racking up other elements within the art-form – particularly the theatrical side of things. At such close proximity, far more attention needs to be paid to acting quality, the dramatic justification of small gestures and decisions, the replacement of spectacle with small-scale devices such as physical theatre and the creative use of props, and in general taking responsibility away from the music in the creation of mood and subtext. The orchestra is no longer laid out between audience and stage, as an interruptive element whose presence (and consequent threat of usurpation to a ‘concert’ format) is both tolerated and assimilated into the opera-house experience. In such a venue, there can be no musical excuses for things. Every theatrical consideration, from the slightest pause to the smallest breath, must be dramatically (and therefore psychologically/politically/emotionally) justified.

Obviously, it is very difficult to reconcile these demands with the fact that, when staging a pre-existing operatic work, so much is already prescribed in the score: timings of pauses and events, the tempo of dialogue, the tone of utterances, and the mood of individual scenes amongst other things. In this sense, the score is like a script with lots and lots of really specific stage directions. Some of them cannot be ignored, but I would contest that others definitely can. Tempo, articulation and dynamics markings, for one thing, can definitely be played with. If orchestration can be condensed into a piano reduction without legal issue, then surely the libretto can also be slightly altered. Otherwise, making an effective intimate production of a large-scale work merely requires the right kind of attitude; directors should see the score as a treasury of resources to guide decisions as to how each scene might reach its theatrical potential.

The Turn of the Screw, a strangely popular work at the moment with not just the OperaUpClose version but a Glyndebourne revival and a Grimeborn production all concurrently playing, is an interesting example to explore in this context, because the story demands an inordinate amount of psychological commitment, of skillful manipulation of subtext, and of command of the audience. Many would argue that the kind of ambiguity made possible by the looseness of written language makes any transferral of the work from book to stage difficult anyway, although the kind of subjectivity possible in film has meant that that medium has fared better. I would agree that ambiguity cannot exist in the same non-committal way within a stage production as it could potentially in a book (or even in an unstaged musical manifestation). The opera does, arguably, adopt a stance relative to the ‘ghosts are real’ vs. ‘Governess is mad’ argument, although following the libretto’s suggestions – and reading the story as a ‘straight’ supernatural tale – would probably make quite a dull production, especially as the ghosts are musically characterised too much to really be scary on this level. Obviously, such a slavish interpretation is not the only option open to a director, but the decision that then has to be made requires a cogent directorial vision, following a commitment to telling the story in a particular way, balancing the ambiguities, and trying as hard as possible to conjure up the sense of fear on which the credibility of the whole work depends.

[Don’t get me wrong, I’m very much not in the camp of those reviewers who think that a knowledge of the original source text is necessary for any kind of informed decision about this kind of adaptation, or that the efficacy of a production has anything to do with what Henry James did or did not ‘intend’. However, I actually think that the most non-committal productions of works like this can result from directors who rely too heavily on what the public ‘probably already know’ about the literary ambiguities of the original tale.]

In this respect, I don’t really think the OperaUpClose Turn of the Screw took a strong enough stance either way. They constructed a final ‘reveal’, that the Governess was in fact confined to an asylum, which was subtly pre-empted by the prologue, but this loses its overall effect unless the potential of the ghosts’ non-existence is constantly alluded to throughout. This could have been done in many ways, with the suggestion of dream sequences, of characterising Mrs Grose in a more unreliable way (I enjoyed her unconventional characterisation, but was thinking, maybe, that she could have been given additional ‘kooky’ spiritualist or overt stoner qualities), of involving the Governess onstage in the ghost scenes, or of generally being a little bit more subtle with the direction of the children (admittedly, a very challenging demand). And the potential was there, on this small stage, for the kind of ambiguous theatre – of symbol and gesture (of which there is a fair amount in the score) – which could have better served both the uncertainty of the presented reality and the need for real fear. I admired the set design – a kind of ectoplasmic cell representative of various domestic spaces whilst constantly re-evoking the white-walled institution – but I think merely exploiting its gauziness and adding a few projections (familiar theatre tricks) undersold any potential fear that might have been produced by injecting some really unusual, unexpected and uncanny gestures into the presentation of the ghosts. In the same way, I spent the whole first act wishing for more sex from Quint (and Miss Jessell) – since so much potential terror could be produced from the discomfort of the suggestion of confrontational sexuality in close proximity – but when they did put a bit of sexy stuff in at the beginning of the second act, I wasn’t really satisfied. Most of the horror of the book comes from the author daring the reader to imagine the extent of Quint’s relationship with Miles. Audiences now may be desensitised to such images, but I say that the screw must be turned again and again until we regain that sense of fear, and this production did little to that effect.

[I think they missed a trick here – although I’m not sure about the other Screw productions, perhaps somewhere they’ve achieved my perfect staging – because the relative newness of these performance circumstances, of opera in close confines, lends itself ideally to unexpected occurrences and uncanny gestures.]

It’s a big ask, but we should think enough of our practitioners (and the opportunities that they have to work with experienced non-musical theatre practitioners) to expect great things from what is a very exciting movement. I can see Screw‘s allure, as a short, sparse, claustrophobic opera on a popular text, to attract new audiences, but I also think that it is a very very hard work to get right, especially in these new studio settings. Because – I think it is very important that there is a consensus here – a new, intimate, theatrical operatic movement will demand better productions than we have come to expect from the opera houses. And this doesn’t mean better singing or playing, of course, but more creativity, more challenging approaches, better acting, more social/political relevance or psychological truth, and generally a deeper (or harder) effect on the audience. This new audience will be discerning, they won’t know what ‘the perfect Traviata‘ necessarily looks and sounds like, and they will want something that has actually thought itself through and justified itself at every stage of its inception.

I’m not saying OperaUpClose’s The Turn of the Screw failed in any way, I would recommend to it all – especially those who are sceptical about opera (it runs til the 8th September) – but it isn’t perfect. And I think, if companies want to rehabilitate pieces that have a history of performance in big, heavy-handed productions in opera houses, they need to aspire to perfection (i.e. to have a particular vision or purpose to aim towards). Otherwise, I would impress on all these companies that the best way to avoid the potential problems posed by ‘finding’ the psychological drama in old scores, and navigating the demands of authoritarian musical ‘scripts’, is to stage new works. A contemporary composer and librettist can discuss with the director and designer at length in order to tailor their work – down to the timing of each breath – to the dramatic requirements of these intimate venues, and the forms of theatrical practice and acting that fit them. New scores can be bent to the many facets of these fantastic new venues, and the result could be productions that no longer need to ‘find solutions’ to old problems. It is not only of cultural importance that new writing should regain precedence, but it is of practical importance as well.


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2 Responses to Studio Opera in London: Grimeborn/Tête à Tête/OperaUpClose

  1. eidelyn says:

    A very relevant interview with the Opera Group’s John Fulljames here, from the Evening Standard:

    ‘”[We] were hungry to make new opera which felt connected to the broader cultural landscape, which fed off the vibrancy of contemporary theatre and design as well as contemporary music.”‘


    ‘”It can’t be merely a question of ‘How can we fill this theatre?’ If you’re making something simply because you know it’s going to sell, if you know the product before you go through the process, then it ceases to be an arts organisation. At that point it becomes a museum.”‘

  2. Pingback: Tête à Tête & Grimeborn ’12 – a tentative preview… |

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