I’ve spent much of the last year or so working on a new opera with Opera Erratica, called Triptych, which had its first performance at London’s Print Room theatre last night. I’m very happy with the show and I’d recommend everyone to get tickets; it’s on for three weeks (17th May – 7th June 2014) at the Print Room, before moving to Wilton’s Music Hall for four performances (9th & 10th June 2014), as part of the Spitalfields Music Festival. Tickets can be bought here and here (starting from £10).
Triptych is an opera in three parts, with each part composed by a different composer: Christian Mason, Thomas Smetryns and Chris Mayo. The concepts, texts, staging, and some of the musical vocabulary, was developed as part of a series of devising workshops with the director Patrick Eakin Young, the composers, a writer (Orlando Wells), and the Opera Erratica Core Company themselves: five singers who have been training together in the ‘Viewpoints’ improvisation method.
The initial impetus for the three pieces was three arbitrary genre tags – ‘Comedy’, ‘Tragedy’ and ‘a piece about Nuns’ – distilled from Puccini’s Il Trittico. Each tag was explored from a number of different angles, before themes and narratives were developed and tested, a text was established and a score composed. I have written elsewhere about the potential of ‘ensemble opera’. Because of inevitable constraints on time, money and personnel, Triptych wasn’t a pure experiment in collaborative opera creation, without any hierarchy or division of labour, but it did take clear and fairly unprecedented steps in that direction (especially where the involvement of professional opera singers has been involved), and I think it shows in the final production.
The three pieces are very different, utilising quite distinct narrative and musical styles to tell three self-contained stories, yet there are a number of themes and motifs – visual, narrative and musical – that run through the entire opera (which is only a little over an hour in duration). The set design by Gavin Turk, erstwhile provocateur of the YBA generation, overdetermines a lot of these motifs, by effectively preventing each piece from sitting comfortably in its own world. Turk’s design, remaining strictly within his aesthetic simulacrum, self-reference and irony, simulates a fake exhibition of his own works, already ‘fake’ ready-mades and trompes l’oeil, effecting a double-distancing of the Duchampian ‘ready-made’ into a mise en abyme of reproduction. The irony here is that this fake art gallery of fake fakes reverts, at several points in the piece, to the ‘real’ location of the singers who remain onstage for the entire opera, taking on different characters but eventually reverting to their place within this gallery setting. Representation, mediation, reproduction and recomposition are all present themes, as well as real musical processes, in each piece.
The Voice in Triptych
Taking a step back from the finished product – the composers’ scores, the design, the Company’s treatment – there are plenty of other motifs that bind the pieces together. For me, though, the most interesting and (in my opinion) important idea that the piece investigates is the idea of the Voice (utterance, vocal presence, speech acts, logo/phonocentrism, etc etc). The Voice is, of course, the central concern of all opera. However, Triptych can be seen not just to interrogate the place of the Voice in opera, but to make use of the medium to extend this interrogation to the various unique qualities, dimensions and potentialities of the Voice in the world.
In Triptych, voices are both located (in space, in time, in social class, in gender) and dislocated. Each piece makes use of the superimposition of voices that are present and voices that are absent (or perhaps I should say ‘acousmatic’: it is the source of the voice taht is absent). The presence of absent voices is, in fact, the most striking musical link between the three operas. These voices call up all that is uncanny about recording, the voice as ‘partial object’ in psycho-analytic theory, the voice as artifact, the mediated voice and the reproduced, represented, reframed voice.
‘Reunion’ (Singing in Tongues)
Mediation – technological, social, interpersonal – is conspicuous everywhere, from the multi-layered Nun piece (Christian Mason’s ‘Reunion’) onwards, which juxtaposes at least three very different modes of vocalisation. We are presented with an interview – two recorded voices, talking ‘on record’, as it were – and an attempt to articulate, or re-articulate, a past experience or intangible, unbearable truth. To realise something latent, by drawing it into (recorded) speech, and preserve it therein. The key word: ‘confession’, a paradigmatic ‘speech act’ if ever there were one.
Against this, we hear a religious ceremony in which the voices are the actors, effecting a transcendental transformation not only through linguistic content but through its utterance, and its utterance via prescribed melodic contours. In such ceremonies, vocal (and musical) quality becomes a kind of magic catalyst that transforms mere words into divine actions (words which, if read on a page, would hardly have the same ‘agency’). There are two layers of content here: the language itself appears plain – ‘I vow’, ‘I profess’, ‘I pronounce’ – but beneath it is a more arcane content which cannot be fully understood.
This third layer is comprised of every aspect of the Voice that is not reducible to words. ‘Reunion’ is a repository of unparsable content, not just in the ceremony itself which enacts more than it expresses, but in the rigid constructions of the melismas and, most pointedly, in the vocalisations which form the majority of the amorous nuns’ musical material. Whole passages of text are heard spoken and then sung, foregrounding the ‘gap’ between the two. In this way, the piece plays out explicitly the gender politics supposedly present in all opera wherein the expressive content of the (female) voice exceeds the ‘logocentrism’ of the words that contain it, and that drive the often misogynistic narratives.
‘Reunion’ is, in some ways, about a male imposition into a female-gendered world, although this world is itself determined by some kind of transcendent, absent maleness, in the figure of Christ-as-bridegroom. I’m not sure whether it can convincingly be read as a feminist piece, although it was informed from early on by various real-world feminist aesthetics, yet it certainly engages with the gendered context of opera (the palpable division of vocal types across the pitch spectrum), as well as the immediate context of the Company, which is primarily female in constitution.
The male cameraman, enacting and embodying his own framing Gaze, attempts to impose a solipsistic reading onto an event that he doesn’t and cannot understand: his ex-lover’s conversion to a religious life. His mediation attempts to explain away her decision in terms of an infidelity, positioning her between himself and another man (Jesus), and she humours him. Yet he is denied the final word; the concluding moments of the piece, when the impotent, embittered Man finds himself expelled from the nuns’ world, features an ecstatic ensemble chant, devoid of linguistic content, which nevertheless affirms the inexpressible, inarticulable truth that the young nun has found in her new life (perhaps even a truth that cannot be reduced to a male gender pronoun).
‘A Party’ (Me Sing Pretty One Day)
Voice takes an even larger presence in the Comedy piece – Thomas Smetryns’s ‘A Party’ – which is effectively about learning to speak. Both this and the final piece could be said to make use of the ‘hauntological’ qualities of the Voice, although these qualities are more expressive of a comedic failure in the second, and a poignant lack in the third piece, than an uncanny present-absence. The piece is replete with references to the failure of vocalisation, of speech and communication. There are effectively zero instances in which two characters speak (or sing) to each other in everyday communicative dialogue. In every case, the speech comes pre-mediatised, problematised, it mechanics awkwardly exposed. I see this as a necessary dimension of opera, whose vocalisations are always-already problematised; nobody can ever just ‘speak’ in opera, because they’re always singing as well. It isn’t normal, it screams out its own abnormality. For these reasons, it’s an incredibly productive medium for investigating the real barriers to communication, the real impossibility of a perfect dialogue.
In ‘A Party’, speech is reproduced as soon as it is produced. The piece’s sonic score is composed entirely of repurposed recordings, primarily from an actual English language audio course from the ’50s. Through an ingenious performance conceit, speech is determined, mediated, socially instrumentalised in the moment of its utterance. As a kind of ironic riposte to the crisis of expressivity in the previous piece, we are shown how we are socialised through language, and at the same time, the sheer inadequacy of such a social adhesive is made glaringly clear. The piece culminates in an orgy composed entirely of social niceties.
‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’ (Reported Song)
The final piece, Chris Mayo’s ‘The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered’, is a mystery, which places absence (the disappeared architectural photographer Richard Nickel) at the centre of its narrative. All the ideas of the recorded voice as artifact, snapshot, trace etc, find their visual analogies in this piece, which is obsessed with piecing together narrative from remnants, ruins and traces.
As in all the pieces, the presence of an absent voice (that of Nickel’s friend John Vinci) is balanced by the necessary incompleteness of present voices – the singers who are not fully characters, whose voices are semi-autonomous, who appear as mouthpieces for a patchy narrative which nevertheless instrumentalises their bodies, their human presence, to draw us into an emotional attachment to the absent Nickel. The text style is one of reporting and quotation, even the lovely aria at the end – giving voice to the doubly-absent fiancée Carol Sutter, partially obscured in the hopeless search for Nickel – is a quotation, performed as a quotation, however seduced we are by the material reality of the singer’s presence.
The refusal to naturalise or normalise sung speech within the ‘world’ of the opera is, I believe, a fundamental position for new opera to take. The music remains a problem, it is conscious of itself; opera cannot pretend it is identical to theatre, nor to a concert performance, nor to mainstream musical theatre. In his director’s note for Triptych, entitled ‘Reverse Engineering Opera’, Patrick Eakin Young calls the piece ‘an attempt on many levels to disassemble, analyze, and reconstruct opera itself’. A re-analysis of the place of the Voice in opera is central to this process.
Through this deconstructive attitude, I believe that Triptych has arrived at a place of genuine experimentalism, yet retentive of a certain kind of accessibility which much experimental work quickly relinquishes. At the heart of this is an inversion of the compact of most experimental art with its audience. Rather than withholding or obscuring content, in order to provoke a more engaged, responsible reaction from the viewer or listener, all three pieces in Triptych offer a surfeit of content, an overabundance of detail and richness which is very rare in contemporary opera, so obsessed as it is with very very old aesthetic ideologies of unity, clarity and economy. I believe this will be (perhaps counter-intuitively) more provocative, more aggravating to a certain audience than the most severe and spartan of experiments, but it is also a lot more generous. I hope this is the case anyway; for me, the best thing anyone could conclude about the three pieces in Triptych is that they all take some kind of genuine risk. I still think there is no more important prerequisite for art.
Triptych is at the Print Room, W2 5AJ, from 17th May – 7th June 2014, 7.30pm, and then at Wilton’s Music Hall, E1 8JB, on 9th & 10th June 2014, 6.30pm/8.30pm, as part of Spitalfields Summer Music Festival.