Live Review: Manga Sister @ The Yard

So the last few posts have been very serious and polemical, and although we at the biting point do believe that such political statements are very important (and that not enough are being made), this site is still meant to be an optimistic place in which positive trends in contemporary music are celebrated. You can find many of these on our links page – ‘the moment’ – to which we’re constantly adding exciting new ensembles, composers and projects. To this list we can definitely add LIVEARTSHOW, the group behind the short opera Manga Sister which had its premier run at Hackney Wick’s pop-up The Yard theatre last week.

The venue itself is yet another superb project from Practice Architecture, the team behind Frank’s Café in Peckham, which hosted the car park Rite of Spring earlier this year. This community-focused temporary space, integrated organically into a warehouse using recycled material from the Olympic Park, is the perfect kind of environment in which to develop a new opera totally detached from large institutions, their audiences and their expectations. The result – Manga Sister – was a small but important project.

Dealing with an entirely unconventional plot – set in a contemporary nursing home and moving between a dark comic reality and an outrageous, anime-inspired fantasy – the opera is an example of a new composition that dealt freely and creatively with an absurd but delightful libretto, without feeling unduly indebted to any musical or theatrical tradition. The story focuses on an elderly, handicapped man, tormented by neglectful nurses (I know, sounds hilarious), whose only solace comes from repeatedly viewing a violent Japanese cartoon. Harry Blake’s music was fantastic – tonal but not banal, using parody effectively but sparingly, and employing a small ensemble with great resourcefulness. The staging, smoothly integrating dance elements and projections onto a simple set, was equally effective, and the singer-actors were all very good.

Through some clever dramatic and musical devices, the piece was lifted from the precarious position of many of the small contemporary comic operas of the kind that you might see at Tête à Tête, in which tiny farcical plot structures are bolstered by the comedic potential of singing swearwords and heavy musical parody. The one moment of humourous quotation in Manga Sister, linking a character connotatively to Mozart’s Queen of the Night, was fairly subtle, and justified by the arresting structural effect of having an amplified, looped recording of the phrase invade the otherwise acoustic score. Otherwise, each hallucinatory ‘viewing’ of the anime fable, whose plot runs parallel to the nursing home narrative, is accompanied by a long, lyrical musical refrain sung by a narrator in the audience. This non-linear structural intervention compliments the invasion of pop culture fantasy into the otherwise mundane setting, and prepares for the piece’s escapist ending.

Thematically, Manga Sister is a relatively slight work, perhaps, compared to the grand aspirations of many opera composers, but this is part of its success. The creative team have put together a funny and quite striking work out of bizarre thematic material that would never normally be considered by opera, but material which is original enough in form and content to elicit some brilliant moments. In tone, it did perhaps err a little too far on the comic side (the characterisation of the neglectful nursing home carers, while fun, could have been a little less endearing). I was also half-expecting (and hoping for) another narrative twist at the end, dragging the story back into a mundane reality which might have cast a darker shadow over the entire piece, and sharpened some of the themes.

However, it is one of the first examples that I’ve seen of a fully-realised contemporary opera run, situated entirely outside of the mainstream institutions (despite some affiliation and assistance from various larger companies), and managing to be engaging and accessible both musically and theatrically. And, as I’d expect, it was well-received critically and attracted an enthusiastic young audience. I think it is very telling that LIVEARTSHOW describe themselves, not as an opera company, but as ‘a company made up of writers, directors, composers, designers and choreographers coming together to create new theatre with music’. It seems that it requires a real interdisciplinary (or at any rate non-‘operatic’) attitude in order to countenance putting on a new opera as unconventional as this, in as removed a venue. The claim that Manga Sister was ‘developed through workshops with actors, singers and dancers’ is equally encouraging.

What we need now is a lot of pieces on this kind of scale, happening all the time. Were this to happen, however slight each individual work may seem, it could add up to a genuine movement which could then begin to take charge of what opera ‘should or shouldn’t be’ and what it ‘can and can’t do’.


For further inspiration, a fantastic article by Philip Venables which I recently discovered and thoroughly endorse:


‘…a rallying call to composers: forget every grand opera we’ve ever seen and eliminate every grandiose vision of our work gracing the main stage of the ROH. It won’t.  Once we’ve got over that vanity, everything else is up for grabs, from what our message is, to how we say it, to how we present it.’

‘…I want to be shocked, affronted, disturbed, challenged, riled by opera’s extreme, brutal opinions.  Why is politically outspoken opera so rare, when the other arts are perpetual rebels?  Are we just a bunch of pussies, beholden to the moneyed tastes of the establishment? Just like other art forms, opera can protest injustice, expose psychological problems and help us deal with human catastrophe – and it should.’ 

yesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyesyes + yes

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