Friday, 17 January 2014

The Answer To Everything, Streetwise Opera

Streetwise Opera's ambitious project The Answer To Everything is at once remarkably complex and at the same time single-mindedly focused. Although it is a situation satire based on the idioms, trappings and absudities of the modern corporate conference, Streetwise Opera are circumspect with the mockery in the show. It's conceivable that some of the participants in the work may well have had a similar line of work before falling on hard times. Poor choices or bad luck isn't judged in The Answer To Everything but assimilated in a clever tapestry of narrative meandering, operatic interpolation and film-to-stage fourth wall hopping. It's superb. 
I saw The Answer To Everything at the London Short Film Festival at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. The film is at the heart of the show. It is a testament to the conviction of the company that such a high-quality film should have been produced to work hand-in-glove with the live performance (which includes film relay from the foyer of the auditorium and a brief mobile sequence inamongst the audience, necessitating sharp direction as the action moves from screen to stage). Although the piece is a double-barreled satire on reality-obsfucation of corporate hysteria and at the same time an umbrella critique of the lack of housing, the film helps to explode the idea that homelessness is a specfically urban problem. Locations move out from London to Manchester's suburbs and end up on a Northumbrian beach.

Inbetween, the 'Locateco' executives try to push their flawed plan for cheap urban housing projects with New Labour-echoing flannel. As I mentioned, the emphemeral nature of what they actually say provides an excellent dovetail to bits of actual opera. For example, Handel's Lascia ch'io pianga is sung by Elizabeth Watts as both cleaner and receptionist, whilst the corporate chorus move through the space like zombies - a shift in the perspective of 'foreground character' that itself has a clear resonance for those who have faced homelessness, one might presume.

Overlay of solo and group singing is extremely well-marshalled. The non-professional cast are incorporated without diluting the actual impact of the music with worthiness or undercutting with patronising tokenism. David Patterson's strong performance of the safety officer's song, one of many live solipsisms in film and staging, was the primary case in point.

Juxtaposing contemporary mundanity with solid operatic hits is a winner. One can easily imagine modern figures of speech, such as 'unexpected item in bagging area' or 'mind the gap' used as text. The surreality of opera at such a moment pulls the veil of artifice from the situation (rather like the slideshow 'error' that shows the reality of modern housing that the company are keen to cover-up). I was reminded of the video for Radiohead's Just in which a corporate bod has a moment of clarity which brings his own existence to a Schopenhauerian stasis.

Yet Streetwise Opera have no interest in identifying existential purposelessness in people's lives. Quite the opposite. The purpose of the project is clear (this is a triumph in itself, for any opera!). It is to identify the latent emotional charge in anyone's day-to-day occupation, whether it's the anonymous ruminations of a lady at the bus stop or the charismatic but vacuous grandstanding of the conference compere (the excellent Robert Gildon as 'Paul Hedges' in this performance) and giving it voice by grafting it to music.

We're all susceptible to the illusory when art is used in this way - the audience sing-along to the energetic pantomime of corporate commandments ("... downsize, upgrade, networking, feed the photocopier...") was infectious, good fun. Yet the nicely handled denoument manages the joy of emancipated thought without trespassing on proper ecstasy. It remains grounded. The group have come to the beach and enjoy a paddle but the situation hasn't crossed over into a wholesale metaphor, like the conclusion of Terence Malick's The Tree Of Life. The camera catches reality in the eyes of the participants. Therein is the light of vigour and renewed confidence rather than the reflection of aspiration, dying with the sunset.

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