August is nearly upon us, which means the annual ‘discovery’ of fringe opera in London – maybe a column in Time Out about how opera needn’t be for posh people any more, some witty line about trading black tie for dubstep, etc. – although the emphasis on Cultural Olympiad events may end up precluding such a gesture this year. Meanwhile, both the Tête à Tête Festival at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, and the Arcola Theatre’s Grimeborn Festival, have become reasonably cemented as perennial showcases of the country’s various studio opera groups in a scene that, while not really progressing or coalescing at any tangible rate, has at least become entrenched enough to stand its ground as a cultural presence. I’ve had a little look at the programmes of each and, on the little information that I can presume to glean from this material, point out a few events which particularly stick out, as well as moan a bit about the relative lack of such events.
From the looks of both programmes, the two institutions are well settled in their particular niches. Grimeborn has all-but-abandoned new works (previous programmes featured significantly more new writing), becoming instead a kind of condensed King’s Head showcase, with up-close, scaled-down productions of classics (The Marriage of Figaro, Rigoletto, Hansel and Gretel), as well as those enticing follies – the ‘little known one act-ers’ attached to the historical Big Dogs – and obligatory La Voix Humaine. For me, its programme pivots on the coup of presenting a Philip Glass UK premiere – The Sound of a Voice.
Tête à Tête continues to be a bastion of new works, with only Andriessen’s recent Anaïs Nin sticking out as a more well-known name. (The 2011 performance I saw of this, with the London Sinfonietta, was quite disappointing in its staging, but there’s certainly potential for this to be a highlight). Otherwise, the large selection of tiny operatic works on offer seem to stick to the usual categories that Tête à Tête (or maybe contemporary opera librettists in general?) seem to favour:
- myths and fairy tales, more often than not ‘dragged into the 21st Century’, i.e. with references to iPods and reality TV, permitting any Carter-esque sexual subtext to be unsubtly foregrounded,
- performance art-y bits, perhaps featuring a single performer and borrowed/deconstructed texts, doing ritually things in a bare space,
- biographical operas or literary fragments, bringing out broad universalist themes from a rapid overview of the life of a scientist, author or painter,
- defiantly mundane or populist subjects, usually with swearing, vaguely suggestive of anti-opera but not necessarily musically radical and almost always theatrically naturalistic.
One of my problems with the Tête à Tête programme in general (apart from that inexplicably terrible, thoroughly bewildering publicity design) is that – if it were a theatre festival – it would all look desperately boring. It’s the assumption that there will be a redeeming musical element to these works that makes them appealing, but the music is downplayed in the publicity – which focuses more on ‘stories’ and ‘themes’ – to the point where it seems to be regarded as quite unimportant. As such, it’s hard to judge which of these works I’d be interested in seeing/hearing, since not many of them seem that appealing (although a couple of sound files for each, or even a few words on the score, might be all that’s needed to sell what is – presumably – the fundamentally important musical aspect within each).
[As I’ve said before, and will keep saying, the supposedly ‘multi-faceted’ tripartite aspect of a work which involves direction, libretto and music doesn’t justify its existence per se. First of all, there must be a reason why this work (story, libretto etc.) requires music and wouldn’t work equally well or better with mere spoken dialogue and silence. Moreover, at least one of these elements must be remarkable to justify a piece’s existence. An opera shouldn’t just be a practice exercise for three artists in concessionary collaboration. At least one facet must at least aspire to ‘visionary’ status or purpose (i.e. not just ‘providing the material’ for the others), or the whole thing is a waste of time.]
Anyway, there are a few pieces in each festival that stick out as potentially interesting, and I’m sure a couple of others that I’ve failed to mention will excel in either music, libretto or staging, or all three, and completely undermine my cynical expectations…
Tête à Tête ::: 2-19 August
Elvis Herod‘s Mike the Headless Chicken distinguishes itself at least with an unusual subject – the eponymous celebrity amputee – and I’d be intrigued to see how this subject is brought to stage. This latter-day ‘Dada Cartoon’ is complimented by a performance centred on the quirky music of Ergo Phizmiz, who has been involved in participatory theatre productions and absurdist musical happenings. His one-man revue is entitled Queen of Names.
Works that experiment with form and process include Warehouse Ensemble‘s annual Six Word Operas and CHROMA‘s Instant Doodle Opera experiment, featuring Loré Lixenberg. Meanwhile, representing works that challenge themselves to engage with unconventional audiences, Scottish Opera provide an opera for toddlers – SensoryO – and Stephen Bentley Klein and Sarah Grange present a multi-sensory opera ‘for people who can hear and people who can’t’ – A Quiet Life – based on the life of deaf astronomer Annie Jump Cannon.
future opera‘s Three to Midnight promises ‘a fusion of opera and dance’, which I’m normally in favour of. A few, very varied, political works are provided by Simone Spagnolo, Boii Theatre and And Then We Danced, although these all represents politics at a remove across time or space. None of the operas appear to engage with contemporary UK politics; The Yellow Dress promises to ‘take an uncompromising look at our treatment of older people’, although the publicity suggest that it’s more a personal-moral than socio-political critique of this very pressing subject. We shall see…
I should finally mention All to Play For, the preview of a new football-themed opera from Opera Room Productions which at least tries to engage with a new subject area for opera, recalling for me Turnage’s contribution to the NMC Songbook, based on a football chant. It could be terrible of course, it depends on what role the composer finds for the music and what kind of analogies might be made between the iconic languages of football and classical music.
Grimeborn ::: 21 August-8 September
Fourfortytwo‘s Unleashed – also showing at Tête à Tête and mentioned before on this blog – leaps out for both its subject matter (sex between men and BDSM) and its style of libretto, a collection of genuine interview transcripts. This kind of attempt to break taboos, so common in other artforms, is strangely unsymptomatic of contemporary opera, especially in this country, which tends more towards the euphemistic when sex is encountered. Meanwhile, the revival at the National Theatre of the critically-acclaimed music theatre work London Road – which also uses interview transcripts to investigate the 2006 Ipswich murders – makes the musical treatment of this kind of text particularly timely. In a triple-bill with Poulenc’s monodrama and an interesting-sounding new piece by Kim Ashton, it’s certainly one to watch out for.
Aside from this, Philip Glass’s 2003 opera The Sound of a Voice gets its UK premiere from Volta Theatre. This work, based on stories by David Henry Hwang, works constructively with very concentrated, pared-down forces and narratives – two singers in two stories of alienation in Japan. I’m not familiar with the music, but it does sound like the ideal sort of piece to work with for this sort of festival.
The Emperor of Atlantis by Ullmann is a great piece that has been getting quite a few performances recently. Here it is presented by Ardente Opera Company. All in all though, there’s little way of knowing what to expect from Grimeborn’s programme of older works. Ludicrously, the festival still lacks a website, and the bare minimum of publicity seems to be put into the performances, which begin more and more to look like stop-gaps before the return of the Arcola’s main programme. I did, however, see a gig recently in the tent in Dalston in which the Arcola is presenting its summer programme, and it is a strange, circus-like space which will surely require some creative experiments in order to accommodate full-length operas. Hopefully, in some cases, this will prove fruitful.
This is all but a very hasty kind of at-a-glance preview. To return to Tête à Tête – the festival features many more conventional-looking pieces. Of these, plenty are bound to be undistinguished and unsuccessful. Some will be good. Perhaps one or two will be really exciting, although – set within the homogenising diversity of the Tête à Tête programme, where everything is ‘an experiment’, the music ranges from sparse electronic modernism to lyrical mid-period Britten throwbacks, and ‘anything goes’ – I think it looks very hard for any one work to distinguish itself. In what is presented as a big ‘melting pot’ of ideas, the potential for one idea to take any kind of precedent, for new trends to form and – importantly – for creative antipathies to arise between styles and techniques, is very limited. The result is carnivalesque – a kind of happy, adventurous daydream – but might well prove ultimately meaningless, especially when it comes to ‘paving the way for the future’ of opera, as the festival boasts (on its ugly, ugly website).
[And, really, at an arts festival where you can allegedly get in for free if you’re dressed as a frog, can we actually expect new opera to be taken as a serious force?]
Still – Tête à Tête plays its role, giving upcoming groups, performers, composers and directors a chance to practice their skills and put together portfolios. I’m not sure if that should be the main role for what has become the most significant fringe opera festival in the city (despite its relative insignificance in contemporary theatre and new music circles), but someone has to do it. They’re also very good at posting videos of performances online, creating a kind of archive for future surveillance.
Meanwhile, I would love to see other hubs of alternative opera production emerge that maybe had more of a mission, an aesthetic vision, or purposeful direction, and that maybe took more of a curatorial stance, rather than just playing the open-minded facilitator of diversity. (And OK, maybe Tête à Tête does have a curatorial stance and it just happens to favour works that I find fairly banal: little musical ‘short stories’ with little-to-no meaning and clichéd declamations, that create a shallow vessel for some anachronistic ‘English’ lyricism and a little colourful instrumentation). Well anyway, I used to think Grimeborn could potentially play that role, if it took more interest in its programme (and got a website), but I think that it too may have found its niche (there are plenty of young companies who want to put on Mozart and Puccini on the cheap, and there always will be). So, for the next big steps to be taken, I suppose we must wait for something else to emerge.