Over the last month I’ve been very lucky to have the chance to assist on two projects from the innovative London-based company Opera Erratica. Previously, I’d been asked on two separate occasions whether I’d heard about a ‘hologram opera’ company coming to London. Following up on this intriguing prospect, I found an attractive website (and lots of lovely videos) cataloguing an impressive rostrum of past productions in Toronto and New York, including an eccentric mash-up opera colliding Pierrot Lunaire with arias from Handel’s Orlando (logically entitled Orlando Lunaire), and a ‘sci-fi rock-opera-ballet’. Their current project, which opened at the Print Room, Notting Hill, earlier this week, is that same ‘holographic puppet opera’ – Toujours et Près de Moi – which closes on 26th May, while their series of workshops on improvisation and physical theatre techniques in opera, dubbed ‘Body/Opera’, are ongoing.
“For us, opera is an idea and an ideal – a departure point for making work that is formally complex and emotionally present…”
The company’s approach to opera is one which appeals to us extremely. Patrick Eakin Young, director and creative force behind Opera Erratica, comes from a theatrical rather than an operatic or musical background, and he’s clearly free from the awful thrall of the operatic canon, along with that tiresome director’s drive to ‘take on’ the ‘great’ works of the repertoire and show us their own ‘unique’ interpretations. Moreover, though, he is also free from a composer-centric view of new opera, beginning with a musical piece – or a scenario for a musical piece – and then producing a theatrical framework which ‘supports’ this piece.
His ideas for the ‘theatre+music’ formula, which is all that ‘opera’ really constitutes, seem to come far more from an idea of how a theatre piece might use music to produce an interesting and meaningful experience, rather than any of the more tiresome ‘questions’ that other directors are always asking of the genre: ‘how do we do the Ring Cycle in a pub?’, ‘would Tristan und Isolde work with the gender roles reversed?’, ‘has anyone ever done a Don Giovanni with live sex onstage throughout?’ etc etc.
…[a little rant]
(I happened to see the RCM’s student opera smorgasbord the other week – a showcase of short works, themed unimaginatively around the centenary of the Titanic disaster and Scott polar expedition. I know it was a student venture and I should be forgiving (I usually make all concessions for sincere attempts to produce new music), but the evening was curated and directed by Tête-à-Tête and, I have to say, I was struck by how often an uninspired libretto was propped up against an uninspired score and uninspired direction in a kind of tipi of uninspiration, justifying itself only by the fact that it constituted a few different elements combined, and therefore it seemed ‘multi-faceted’ even if each particular face was utterly unremarkable and, apparently, unconcerned with being remarkable. The truth is, we’ve reached a point in musical history at which it’s very difficult for a musical score itself to appear a striking proposition. It is up to the theatrical side of things to find a continued justification for new opera. And this means, until we find a radical music culture again, no libretto or direction can exist that wouldn’t be at least quite striking or interesting without the musical element. Certainly it is not enough to set these barely developed clichéd narratives which apparently imagine that their too-familiar words, characters and scenarios will be automatically and transcendentally transformed and rendered unique when set to a musical motif.)
I do feel like new opera will only continue to be interesting if theatre-makers (or filmmakers, animators, artists, TV producers, video-game producers, etc) can find a use for it. I’d be pleased to be shown a composer who could prove me wrong. Meanwhile, Opera Erratica demonstrate that this needn’t be a problem. In a two-pronged campaign, they produce works that is unabashedly, positively and blissfully removed from any major operatic institution, while also preparing an explicitly anti-institutional attitude – behind the Dada-inflected Destroy All Opera slogan – that seems anachronistic only until you remember just how constrained and conservative opera continues to be.
Opera Erratica’s two most recent projects illustrate the potential of an ‘operatic’ approach to music-in-theatre in very different ways, neither of which aligns with the normal ‘characters-sing-the-words-instead-of-speaking-it’ paradigm which is but one (over-explored) way in which sung words can relate to drama.
Toujours et Près de Moi @ The Print Room
This ‘holographic puppet opera’ has as its true raison d’être, not a piece of music, a narrative or an existing piece of text, but a technology. Using a device called a Pepper’s Ghost, translucent holographic images can interact onstage with live performers and real objects, creating a visual dialogue between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ that is put to great effect in a thematic exploration of memories and ghosts. Music is, however, still very important. The brilliantly-curated score was selected before any movement was devised and was used as a starting point for each scenario. Potentially more dance piece than opera, the music is synchronised with sequences of movement, and the apparition of characters and delineation between scenes which suggest recollections of different moments in time.
In its current incarnation at the Print Room, the piece is set to recorded music, but will eventually be realised – at the Spitalfields Festival – alongside an ensemble of live singers, which should visually foreground a musical score that is already far more than just an accompaniment. The relationship between different numbers of voices – from James Weeks‘s searingly sparse one-woman ‘Complainte’ to the three Gesualdo madrigals which provide the piece’s richest, most emotionally open textures – are invaluable in articulating a scenario which explores communication (and lack thereof) within a relationship/family group. The various solo voices in Christopher Fox‘s ‘Outsider’ (from his fascinating Everything You Need To Know installation), appearing each in turn with distinct and starkly differentiated rhythmic and melodic qualities, characterise the disconnected, alienated figures as they appear encased in their boxes. Alongside these works, two madrigals by Sciarrino function perfectly in the work’s darker moments.
The dance scenes, loaded with physical nuance and saturated with emotional suggestiveness, are given a more specific emotional context by the frame of the hologram technology and the presence of the two ‘real’ performers. These performers are recognisable as older versions of their holographic selves, so that every moment of ‘remembered’ emotion – joyful or terrible – is redefined by its absence in the sober, muted present. The holograms themselves are marvellous to watch, with the marvel that carefully crafted and animated puppetry instills, but their employment is so tasteful that any purely ‘spectacular’ element doesn’t distract for long. Toujours is more a piece concerned with beauty than with gimmickry, its gorgeously executed dance moments framed by a visual symbol of their own ephemerality, producing some beautiful images within images.
Say, then, we maintain that it is an opera, rather than a dance piece or physical piece set to a through-playing soundtrack. What might that mean? I’d argue that it might seem particularly appropriate, then, that the music is mediated by the amplification technology, just as the images are mediated by the screen. The voices are as distant as the hologram figures and as beautiful, but they are voices of the past (appropriately timeless in their unifying Renaissance influence and a cappella arrangement). Just as the ‘real’ present onstage is a world of muted colours and emotions, so it is a world of silence, to which we return. Then, if the work is an opera sung (and not just danced) by holograms, it is very appropriate that they are unaccompanied and singing in divers but unintelligible languages, with music that speaks powerfully but still conceals. After all, Toujours et Près de Moi is nothing if not ambiguous.
In sharp contrast to a production that has a particular technology at the heart of it, Opera Erratica’s other current pursuit relies on no technology whatsoever, neither on set, scenery, score nor libretto. Through a series of workshops, Patrick Eakin Young has been developing an experimental performance method called Body/Opera, which is essentially a musical extension of the Viewpoints method of group physical improvisation and composition. Singers are first familiarised with the concept of the Viewpoints in a physical context, by which theatre is deconstructed into a number of composite elements (tempo, gesture, topography etc.) which are explored individually rather than immediately combined in the service of some ‘idea’, ‘theme’ or ‘narrative’. To these, a set of new Musical Viewpoints can be added, deconstructing vocal music in a similar manner (i.e. pitch, duration, timbre etc.), which can be integrated into improvisations gradually and allow for some very focused and effectively constrained group work.
I have contributed to a blog charting the workshops’ progress HERE, but it is hard to represent the work accurately in writing, not least because the method is still in its very early stages. However, given a dedicated company with regular training in the technique and a highly intuitive group dynamic, Body/Opera could certainly be used eventually to create improvised operatic performances combining the thrills of improvised theatre and musical improvisation groups, and thence to devise operatic work in a totally democratic manner, drawing on the creativity and abilities of the entire troupe.
This is, of course, very exciting stuff for the opera world, because it flies in the face of all the ‘authorial’ assumptions that still dominate the genre. The innate difficulties involved in improvising group vocal music, combined with the problems of requiring a through-running musical thread that structures the physical action, has tended to keep composer, librettist and director at the heart of everything. There are plenty of examples of modern musical scores asking for aleatory theatricalisms from performers (although in these cases the behest is still the composer’s), often with ultimately nihilistic intentions. The approach of Body/Opera is far more positive, imagining the eventual creation of full-scale operatic works that aren’t just ‘about’ opera, and are constructed in a genuinely new way.
I imagine one of the bigger problems that Body/Opera will encounter is in finding singers who, having been through the training institutions and been tantalised by the promise of ‘important’ roles and ‘great’ conductors, are willing to give their commitment to the kind of project that – while being more genuinely new and exciting than anything a large opera house could offer – is completely alien to any of their experiences at the conservatoires. The Body/Opera performer would need a large variety of skills, of which actual vocal ‘technique’ would be only one, and nowhere near the most important at that. At the same time though, for the company to really stand out as a new operatic entity, they’ll need strong and characterful voices and exceptional musicians, not just a group of capable singing actors/dancers. These performers do exist, certainly, but they need to be convinced of the exceptional potential of Body/Opera in creating something that, if fully consummated, could be a really positive new direction in an opera world that is becoming increasingly stagnant.
BUY TICKETS for Toujours et Près de Moi —–> HERE!! (it runs until May 26th)
PLUS on this subject I should probably mention the new venture from New York composers Aaron Siegel, Matthew Welch and Jason Cady::::: Experiments In Opera. They talk intriguingly of ‘unorthodox answers to the traditional questions about how to connect words, story and music’. Judge for yourself ——————>> HERE <<