Friday, 23 May 2014

New Music Theatre in London this May

One is able to see new music drama performances in London at almost any time. Usually the summer sees a spike in this sort of activity with the Grimeborn and Tete a Tete opera festivals. However, this May seems to have served up more than our fair share of diverse and probing musical theatrics. Or maybe I've just had the opportunity to go to plenty of them.

De Profundis is a one-man show by Paul Dale Vickers, setting - or, probably more accurately, based on - the poem of the title by Oscar Wilde. The piece is the full length production of Dale Vickers' entry for The New Musical Project earlier in the year. An hour-long work of steady affect provides solo performer Alastair Brookshaw a good platform for his stage and vocal talent, aided with some sharp lighting at the cosy but accommodating Leicester Square theatre studio.

The next day I went to the opposite extreme, just around the corner at the London Coliseum. Thebans is Julian Anderson's first opera, a commission from English National Opera and composed to a libretto from Frank McGuinness after Sophocles. Three self-contained acts essay Oedipus' enlightenment and downfall, the consequent totalitarian state under Creon and its attendant tragedy, and then - out of order - a flashback to the inbetween episode of Oedipus' demise in exile.

A consistent, rhetorical drama which is closer to the Greek model of the original than McGuinness' largely well-judged vernacular adaptation might suggest 'on the page' gives Anderson a nice basis for his imaginative score, with exotic percussion and notably beautiful music for the chorus. ENO's chorus (chorus mastered by Dominic Peckham) respond with excellent, well-calibrated and supremely musical singing for which the solo contributions (with baritone Roland Wood as Oedipus) are technically admirable gilding. I heard the space and light of a neoclassical score and the atonal angles of vocal lines from the same sort of period. Thebans is a substantial and an indisputably original work, which refers to a compositional period where this originality was well-prized.

The following week I was back in the fringe chamber venues of London. The Horse Hospital, complete with extant sloping walkways for its erstwhile patients, 'provides a space for underground and avantgarde media' which on this occasion meant Charles Webber's Room of Worlds to a libretto by former punk singer Eve Libertine. A conflagration of singing, speech, movement and a static but sophisticated digital montage told a story based loosely on The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, documenting a woman's experience of being socially marginalised in a patriarchal society as she is diagnosed as mentally unfit. The sold-out event boasted performances as committed I came across all month, particularly from Cara Mchardy whose uncompromisingly well produced, weighty soprano voice really deserved a bigger space in which to be heard effectively.

Since seeing this show the Horse Hospital has come under threat. More information about this unique, interesting and useful venue in central London can be found here.

BBC/Mark Allan, via classical-iconoclast
Last week saw the Harrison Birtwistle 80th birthday celebrations at the Barbican. I went to see Gawain - yes see, as it was semi-staged with lighting and basic stage marking. Gawain is only just over 20 years old, having been premiered by the Royal Opera (who commissioned it) in 1991 and then in a revised version in 1994. We got the original, more or less. This is a totemic score of mature, dense Birtwistle sound, less frenetic than Punch and Judy, more strident than the ruminative Minotaur. The intensity of the expressionism gives away the relentless vitality in the heart of the score, although it also provides a serious challenge to the singers; I heard the second half from the foyer where the balance through individual mics on the singers and (presumably) a mixing desk, had greatly clarity than in the hall (I had sat to an extreme side of the stalls).

The medieval English romance seems a comfortable fit for Birtwistle's music (for all its wild atonality, the score seems to have a restricted, decorous colour palette). The BBC Singers provide an off-stage Greek chorus, comparable in its accomplishment to the ENO chorus for Thebans earlier in the month, albeit behind microphones and consequently dampening the impression of its impact in the hall. Excellence was standard among the singers, though I marvelled additionally at Leigh Melrose, singing swaggering baritone-in-alt one moment and then padding about as a dead man walking the next - a more mellifluous encounter than the more parlando role of Wozzeck in which he shone at the Coliseum last year. Sir John Tomlinson reprised his Green Knight, a role written for him by the composer, on a day off from Schoenberg's Moses for WNO. I also felt that Rachel Nicholls made the Queen look a lot easier than it must have been.

On Thursday I was back in the wilds of a Zone 2 fringe venue, at the GOlive series in the Lion and Unicorn pub Theatre in Kentish Town. INvocation is a one-woman show, an hour-long drama from Peta Lily which reports back on the funny-to-surreal experience of trying to pursue a life in drama whilst wanting to tie down the reasonable trappings of a modern middle-class life.

INvocation is, unlike these other shows, a spoken drama (though we get snatches of a song and a particularly funny skit involving a suit of armour, Siegfried's horn call and a profit chart rendered in salt). The compelling and unifying element of the performance is the precision and consistency of Peta Lily's movement, which is continually engaged with the modest audience, never stinting, even when thrown the odd curve-ball retort during periodic fourth wall-waiving. In tandem with purpose and control of her face, body shapes and some voices - not to mention some sharply responsive lighting cues - this made for clear emotional narrative.

Finally this evening I went to Notting Hill's The Print Room to see a trio of operatic scenes from Opera Erratica. Triptych - Reunion, A Party and The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered by different composers to texts by Patrick Eakin Young started off as if bearing some content-resemblance to Puccini's Il Trittico, but then the nuns start to take their clothes off...

In fact the switching of affect between the self-contained dramas is similar to Puccini's mix of emotional centres. All the pieces were a fully integrated mix of highly accurate and exposed singing against a spare, electronically processed pre-recorded track. In addition the cast carried out an interdependent matrix of prop placement, choreography and costume changes (well, largely removal!). This was all in a bright set designed by Gavin Turk which doubled as a screen for live and recorded projections. As with A Room Of Worlds, the use of recorded sound worked as there was no attempt to integrate this with the performers, balance-wise. Rather, recorded voices was treated as a separate entity, balanced to the room and with its own character retained as a feature rather than made to suffer some pseud assimilation.

I laughed properly and with abandon at the simple comic conceit of A Party and the outer movements were invested with genuine sobriety. All-in it's less than 75 mins long and well worth experiencing for yourself during its long run.

Tuesday, 13 May 2014

The East London Group of Artists, Bow Arts

'From Bow to Biennale' is how this exhibition of the East London Group of Artists (from around 1928 - 1936) is being sold. If that sounds a bit 'today Wanstead, tomorrow the world!' then you might like to look up and around as you approach The Nunnery, the exhibition space. As one might expect, there's the usual scrum of Victorian and post-war housing but there's also a new spume of modern, higher rise flats tumbling up against the ring road. In the distance is the ArcelorMittal Orbital. This is a part of London that is at once utterly domestic but also aspires towards further vistas. The East London Group were exhibited not only alongside notable artists from this country, including Nash and Sutherland but also beside work by the Impressionists; their style seems very much at home here in 2014.

My sense of the art on show was that a really wide net of influence had been brought onto the canvases and boards. The artists were schooled and some professional, with Walter Sickert a flamboyant (and capricious) tutor. A limited palette ('rose tinted'?!) Mornington Crescent scene is a prettily mist/smog veiled contribution of his to this exhibition. As the succinct exhibition notes make clear, the expedient time of day is responsible for many of the scenes being set early in the morning, contributing to the sense of impressionist haze. Walter Steggles is the prinicipal exponent of this, with Bow Bridge on the publicity flyer (above): a carefully controlled palette and confident impasto gives as much a sense of mass as the sharp shadow in the morning light. Elwin Hawthorne's paintings are of similar scenes (Demolition of Bow Brewery) but have a sharper focus to their lines. The control of the colour recalls the suburban pastorales of Edward Hopper as, unfortunately, does the slightly clunky figures in the foreground.

For these artists, the figurative was the landscape not the passing population. Hawthorne's watercolour The Distillery recalls the industrialised South Downs of Paul Nash, the blocks of machinery absorbing personality from composition, colour and wash. This is even true of the vibrant, gaudy Hackney Empire by Albert Turpin. Though stuffed with people queuing in the rain for the show the frame is dominated by the theatres towers, picked out of the indigo clouds and reflected in the wet pavement.

There are a sequence of portraits but I was drawn to the domestic still lifes. Henry Silks' meticulous reporting of a bedroom scene The Chair By The Bed does greater justice to the mundane inventory of objects at hand than living with them day to day would merit. I also liked Archibald Hattenmore's Interior, whose Vuillard-like clash of patterns conceal the cheekily positioned central light in the composition, hanging directly in front of the portrait's own face.

If you go to see the show (it's free) then do make sure that you go on into the café. This is not only because of the good quality coffee on offer but also for the selection of 'You Can Be Sure Of Shell' campaign advertising posters to be seen. The oil company commissioned a selection of the artists from the group to produce landscapes that would encourage the motorist to venture out into the countryside, off the beaten - or rail - track. The posters are original and are good reproductions of the art produced for their purpose.


This article first appeared in

This weekend we all* watched the Eurovision song contest (*well, everyone on my Facebook timeline). If you want to read a blog post about the Polish milkmaids or the exotic Austrian winner you may want to look elsewhere. Indeed, if you want to rail against the scandal of the voting in which cold political statements are made with a warmly sequined 'dooooze points!' I'm sure there are columns for that too.

I - like Graham Norton - was more concerned with the two performers from Russia. The Tomalchevy sisters caught the collateral whip crack of opprobrium against their home country for it's perceived disdain for both the LGBT and European communities. Irrespective of the quality of their song or performance ('Shine' - video), they got booed.
Booing at a live performance is very extreme. On the contrary, most people get clapped in a theatre before anyone or anything has had the chance to establish any merit at all (Sir Edward Downes, formerly of the Royal Opera, was always clear on applause - that it was mandatory as an act of courtesy on the part of the audience).

Booing cannot be construed as forming part of the courtesy scale. It's a serious affair. For someone to boo implies that the quality of a performance has been more than low. No, a booed performance has simply slipped off the end of the aesthetic scale altogether.

This is desperately hard for a performer to take. After all, a performer may have been happy with the standard of their performance, whatever anyone else thinks. Even where it's imperfect by their own admission, a lot of work will have gone into preparing the role, let alone dispatching it on stage. Much more to the point - especially in the technologically long-winded, multidisciplinary situation of opera - the performer is the focus not only for their own work but also that of a large number of other people. With consensus and compromise (at its most positive!) built into the production process,  the scale of the task that is achieving universal satisfaction becomes apparent.

This is why it happens then: the grey area between aesthetics and technical achievements, seen through the widely prismatic taste of the potential audience. Then there are the political statements (Peter Tatchell popped up at an LSO concert on Sunday) and personal statements... perhaps you've seen this?

Carlos Kleiber waits patiently for the exceptionally vocal 'loggionisti' at La Scala to finish making known their feelings at his conducting of Otello in 1976. This longstanding group of self-styled cognoscenti claim to have appreciation for the music. Yet their motives may go as far as partizanship for favourite performers (or, as recounted by Thomas Allen in his biography, for money). More recently, Roberto Alagna lost patience after a perfectly good 'Celeste Aida'. Also this week the blogger Intermezzo flags up a story in which the director of the Staatsoper, Franz Welser-Möst is obliged to shrug off the booing of a fan of another conductor.

Nowadays audiences in the UK are fairly wise to the recently established position of Regietheater. Directors are seen as the decisive arbiter of a production, so dissatisfaction with an evening at a show is often meted out on the production crew at a premiere curtain call. However, it is also becoming popular to boo a clear-cut villain in an opera at the curtain call - all very well but still difficult for the hard working Nick Shadow, Iago or Claggart (for example) to take with grace at the end of the evening.

As for the Tomalchevy girls, they are blameless in a singing competition carefully constructed by everyone involved to cause the least offence possible. They'd be forgiven for thinking they can't win. But then, as all of us who perform, audition or demand to take any sort of stage know, that's the risk-reward compact of proper live art. As Franz Welser-Möst says in that interview, "Opera is like a sport... [Booing] is part of its lifeblood."

Sunday, 11 May 2014

Costume for Audition

This article first appeared in 

A colleague recently attended a workshop on singing auditions and working in rehearsal. Part of the day’s exercises was a series of mock auditions in which participants would sing to the group as if in an audition situation, so that they could get feedback on how they came across, not only through their singing but also their general presentation.

One of the suggestions from the panel was that on occasion it may feel appropriate to come dressed in a manner pertinent to the role on offer. Taking this advice at its word, one of the participants came dressed in costume, including a hat. This enterprising initiative was welcomed by the panel – although it was noted that the hat actually obscured the performer’s face, on balance not an ideal situation for a first-time encounter.

In general, the ‘rule’ (there’s no rule, just good sense!) for dressing for auditions is to be comfortable so that you can sing well. In America, the idea of actually coming dressed in a manner which shows that you are already thinking about fitting into the role on offer is more accepted. The culture of competition (in the business sense) is more established and this may lend itself to this trend.

The problem is, of course, that you may have the director and designer in the room who have their own ideas for a character’s look, which is immediately at odds with what you have decided to wear. Even if you have got reliable information about the direction in which the production design is going to go, this is still a risky business. The only way to dress for a role is to wear clothes that are directly relevant to the character as represented in the original text (or libretto) and of the period in question. Clearly, hats are difficult – obviously, a mask is not appropriate. Above all, wearing something distracting is going to be counterproductive. Make-up may have the same concealing-vs-enhancing issues; go easy on the eye shadow.

Don’t be put off though! If you feel comfortable – that word again – in the costume in which you have imagined performing and you feel that it is appropriate (donkey’s ears for Bottom, etc.) you may have a great opportunity to make a strong impression on a panel. Fulfill the promise of your own conviction. And sing well!