Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Xerxes, Hampstead Garden Opera

Tonight I saw Hampstead Garden Opera's production of Handel's Xerxes (Serse in Italian). Xerxes struggled when it was first heard almost 300 years ago. It broke the opera seria mould by trying some humour and going easy on the da capo (repeated opening section) aria format... and that novelty consigned it to obscurity. Its appeal was revived through Nicholas Hytner's production for ENO in the mid-1980s and Hytner's translation is that used in this unfussy production by Andrew Davidson, with crisp, modern design by Maira Vazeou.

Indeed the comedy in Xerxes is a little awkward, with incongruity interpolated into a more conventional love, er, tetrahedron. Davidson gives Chris Webb (Elviro) a long leash and a playful prop & costume box to get the audience onside, and it works. Meanwhile there is a some nice singing and also one particularly fine theatrical coup during Freya Jacklin (Amastris)'s final aria courtesy of Jess Glaisher's solipsistic lighting design. The music is fluid but secure under the direction of Richard Hetherington with the notable continuo cello contribution of Kate Conway, whose flawless intonation and mobile but never-undernourished sound was the bedrock of a good performance of the opera.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Into The Little Hill, Shadwell Opera, Limehouse

I was so glad to have caught Shadwell Opera's final performance of George Benjamin's chamber opera Into The Little Hill. The opera is - as Shadwell Opera's director James Furness told us in an introduction - a re-working of the Pied Piper tale performed by two singers with a 14-piece chamber orchestra. Having the instrumentalists arranged around the circular stage area gave one the opportunity to really focus on the sounds: there's a lovely extremity of timbre with misty low woodwind (baritonal clarinet & flute) set against the pontilism of mandolin, banjo and cymbalon. So it was with the singers, Emily Vale (crisp, high soprano) & Jess Dandy whose svelte contralto characterised the smooth-talking of both the scheming Minister and his wife.

I was taken in by the storytelling of the piece, the stylised design and stage movement, and the above-average music-making quickly. It's a good piece, seductive and sorrowful, and bears a moral blade (particularly pertinent in this pre-election period). Finnegan Downie Dear conducted a measured performance with super dynamic contrast.

Much more interesting to me were the circumstances of the performance. The company had brought this production to the John Scurr Community Centre in Limehouse, one stop down the DLR from the company's namesake station, to bring it to 'those who wouldn't normally have access to opera performances'. The other  venues were St. Paul's, Bow and Southern Grove Community Centre.

Now, I can't say how many local people came to hear the performance, and I wouldn't presume to guess the background of the audience, numbering around a dozen. However, being in this space in a residential cul-de-sac of Tower Hamlets really focussed my attention as a member of the audience. Not the proximity of the performers, not the subject matter (a unconcealed investigation of anti-immigration) but simply having the vernacular and conventions of a theatrical opera performance delivered, unmediated, to a space to which one might assume such things are alien.

I was in the audience but concerned with whether the performance was catering for all the audience. Odd. In other words, I felt pressed to examine how different I might be from the people sitting around me. Then, as the performance progressed, the show itself pulled my attention to it, away from the present realism of of the room and into the momentum of the fable.

This is a testament to the conviction of the performers, of course. It's also the value of and reason for live performance. It's not necessary to have had identical experiences to those about you. Yet the transference-like process (to co-opt a psychiatric term) of being aware of your indiviual differences to becoming part of a communal audience is as valuable a part of the theatrical experience as anything delivered by the show itself. I went along to catch a show offered for specific audience based on a specific criteria. The quality of the show and its performance meant that it superceded this predicate and became the reason for anyone to see it. That's a powerful thing for those of us working in lyric theatre to recognise.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

10 Best things for Opera (in the UK) in the 21st century

Here's a recent article from Opera Pulse, an American journal concerning opera. Evan McCormack's piece offers a list of the 10 'best things' to happen to opera so far this century. It's a bit of fun and, moreover, it strikes a celebratory note, looking forward to the future of the artform.

Is it the same in the UK?

Well, let's have a look.

10. Audition notice sites (like YAPTracker)

It's tricky to find an agent who will find you work. However, in the newly-connected 21st century, it's possible to act effectively for yourself. In the UK, audition notice aggregators (such as Audition Oracle, right, or The Opera Stage) bring audition notices to one place and provide a place for employers to find the singers they need.

9. Composer-in-residence programmes

This is a good way of preparing the early ground for point no. 3, the provision of new work (not to mention 6, the provision of new artists). Composing an opera is no sideline however and this doesn't seem to be an established situation of note.

8. Live relays

An unarguable success in its own right. These one-off simultaneous relays in the cinema of opera productions provide accessibility and an alternative to the auditorium which is often held up as a cultural barrier to attending opera in person. It demonstrates that the content of opera - the music, the spectacle and the stories - still has overwhelming appeal.

In the UK cinemas put on relays from the Metropolitan Opera, New York, The Royal Opera, English National Opera and Glyndebourne. The latter along with many European houses stream certain shows live for anyone to watch with a computer and a reliable broadband connection.

Crucially it appears that there is no drop-off in attendance at any of these institutions as a result of this service being made available. A top 3 'best thing' for me.

7. Modern stage technology

Technology accounts for half of the 'innovations' of this list as it's reliable, ubiquitous and cheap. Well, unlike the peripheral concerns of operatic productions, new stage technology may not be ubiquitous or cheap. However its increasing reliability means that directors and designers are able to open up the possibilities of their productions. The most obvious example of this is probably Robert Lepage's recent Ring Cycle for the Metropolitan Opera.

In the UK, I was deeply impressed by Kasper Holten's Don Giovanni for the Royal Opera where an integrated trio of designers (video, set and lighting) project the set design of each scene directly onto an anonymous looking permanent set (above, from the foyer exhibition 'Making Don Giovanni'). There's a piece on the process here.

The key to all these new ideas is that they support the production, rather than subsume it. At grassroots level, we are seeing technology used to improve accessibility through the projection of surtitles for operas performed in a language other than English (Fulham Opera has a good consistent record of doing this).

6. Performance centres or 'hubs'

Rather like the issue of composers in residence, specific high-level operatic performance centres still mean conservatoires, the National Opera Studio and the dedicated programmes of the two main London companies.

However, for all the 'Premier League' culture of importing singers from abroad there is still plenty of company building going on at all levels. Moreover, the importance of education programmes to build audiences as well as broaden the experiential base of the company artists is taken seriously now (and not just to tick social compliance boxes for central funding assistance).

5. Small companies

Small production companies have flourished in the past decade and there are two reasons. The first is the demands of circumstance: a mixture of social trend - i.e. the interest in artisanal production - and austerity-coerced DIY.

Moreover, and this is pertinent for a piece about opera in a new century, there seems to be a need to update. The great success here has been Opera Up Close who have offered a portfolio of innovations. Principal among them is the re-telling of the story of the opera in a modern vernacular, both in language and topography: a Boheme, in modern English, performed on location in an upstairs theatre and the bar(/Café Momus) below and referencing contemporary London outside (right).

4. Modern fundraising

This means crowdsourced project funding. Crowdfunding (in its popular contracted form) is actually rather tricky for performance art. Successful crowdfunding models tend to offer physical product that has unlimited reproduction potential and that can be given as an incentive for support. Consequently it tends to be easier to raise money for recording music - and then to offer a CD or DVD as incentive - than it can be to fund a production which will be finite, ephemeral... and, worst of all, yet to be fleshed out or critically acclaimed.

In short, you could be backing a turkey, bad art. Even if you aren't, most crowdfunding platforms don't give the option or even allow equity in the production to be offered as an incentive, so even if a potential backer thought they could support the new Mamma Mia, there'd be no return on wild, unlimited future success.

Furthermore the Arts Council of England demand that all avenues for funding have been investigated before they will consider applications for awards. This now includes crowdfunding, not least as they suggest it is a method of audience building. This brings us to the final caveat with crowdfunding, which is that if a company's profile is not high then the supporters will almost all be friends & family. Crowdfunding doesn't build audience - it leans heavily on the existing one. Even if an enterprising company has built up a strong distribution base with good social media interaction (for all its promises, crowdfunding platforms do not fulfill this function) then the lack of manifest product and no hope of investment return means that crowdfunding for even a medium-sized company relies on pure altruism.

Crowdfunding is a growth area, not least because of its convenience of processes and database management, but more innovation in how to market performance art is needed before this can become a viable option of funding work.

3. New opera

My point about crowdfunding might extrapolate to McCormack's here - it's difficult to convince people to fund new work, especially when the artform is predicated on a small, much-loved repertory (imagine if the pop industry was basically about cover versions!).

We have heard the music of Thomas Ades and Nico Muhly over here at major houses. I have really enjoyed new operas by Gerald Barry (The Importance of Being Earnest, right) and George Benjamin (Written on Skin) in the last year, not to mention the success of established composers with Birtwistle's Minotaur and Peter Maxwell Davies' Kommilitonen! at the Royal Academy of Music in the past five. There is a movement towards community opera and opera for young people, particularly led by the education department of Glyndebourne. As I write this major new work is in production with English National Opera and the Royal Opera have announced a major new work by Georg Friedrich Haas in their 2015-2016 season launch. In London Tete a Tete Opera provides a tremendous, festival-style platform for new and experimental work, as does the knowingly-named Grimeborn based in Dalston.

Clearly new work is considered important and is being produced. My concern (opinion) is that composers feel a compulsion to distinguish their work from the established repertory by making greater demands on the increasingly well-trained and professional singers. Pushing the extremities of vocal possibility is not the same as giving a competent vocal artist the means to pursue the artistic goals of composition fruitfully. The culture for new work is admirably positive; it probably needs to develop and maintain a basis for constructive criticism alongside it.

2. Crossover

This is one issue where I disagree with McCormack. His subtitle for this bit is 'Broadway, Pop-Culture and Primetime Collaboration' and how working across genres and with alternative artists can help opera 'spread its wings'.

Well the experience of those who work in opera in this country is not this. 'Collaboration' usually turns out to be dilution, diminution or misrepresentation. It's a really treacherous subject as the popular music industry has become adept at exploiting the grey margins of generic cultural subsets to sell itself and label the operatic industry as conservative.

I'd offer this: the image accompanying this section in McCormack's piece has performers inevitably using microphones. All popular singing is necessarily mediated in this way. The basis for opera is that it is not mediated at all. It's power is that it is an immediate art (no, I know it's not as simple as that but it's a useful reference point).

Opera has had success in re-inventing itself as a storytelling medium through the work of smaller companies, such as Opera Up Close (see above) and generic crossover helps sell the tunes. But this only offers a dusting off of the content of opera. Education is the next and steeper step of the process, the only way in which the physical immediacy of the acoustic art of opera can get a fair hearing away from the ulterior-motive marketplace.

1. The internet

In all walks of life the internet is now intrinsic. The only time that the internet has no impact on an operatic production is during the performance itself (though one supposes it's only a matter of time before we are offered a production whose content is improvised, live, around feeds of outside information).

One thing. The rise of small companies is a useful direct analogy for the integration of the internet with opera in the 21st century. Just as wanting to revisit the basic principles of opera production away from the industrial operation of large companies has helped to midwife artisanal (or 'bijou') opera, so some may look for respite from the ubiquity of technology in the bare essentials of opera - the tenets after which this blog is named, for example. This is - absolutely - not to say that opera in the 21st century may produce those who run to a bare performance ghetto in rejection of what the new century has to offer. Rather that the simplicity of acoustic lyric theatre suddenly has a renewed perspective in an otherwise integrated society.

It's not difficult to see the parallel between turning off a smartphone for two hours of theatre and 'turning off' your day-to-day concerns for the same.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Swanhunter, Linbury Studio Theatre

The cast of this co-production (between the theatre company The Wrong Crowd and Opera North) were pre-set as we came into the theatre: four friends in Borgen-chic jumpers and hats sitting outside tents. Both before and after the lights went down, we watched them entertaining one another with play acting. One recalls the sequence at the beginning of Anthony Minghella's The English Patient where the cartographers entertain one another around the fire in the desert. Songs and stories - you can see how this show had already got off on the right foot with this blog.

So Swanhunter seamlessly (I'll return to this word) carried on, telling the story of Lemminkäinen who travels North in search of a wife. His mother doesn't much like the idea and the surprisingly grim latter parts of the show support her scepticism. Although this is, in many respects, a show aimed at children, it doesn't patronise them. The violence of life is stylised but the stage images are dredged from surprisingly dark recesses of the imagination, not unlike Guillermo del Toro's wonderfully designed film Pan's Labyrinth. The superb lighting of Richard Howell is a part of this, as is this simple but persistently effective mini-proscenium that sits over the centre of the stage, a silhouette of mountains in equivocal perspective.

With a six-hand band including an accordion and kit drum, Jonathan Dove's orchestration allows the cast to be heard without having to shout. Yet even with succinct, oft-repeated material (this is a virtue in my opinion) the cast was properly tested. Suzanne Shakespeare's eponymous Swan is a case in point, requiring proper oxygen-thin tessitura singing, which was strung out in silver like the aqueous lighting. Adrian Dwyer's paints Lemminkäinen as a rather green hero and gets most of the laughs he plays for. All the rest of the cast bring this humour to the portence of their individual & ensemble roles, largely through considerable energy (impressive in itself - this run has including same-day matinees).

Added to all this is continuous puppeteering and a number of costume changes, often in the aforementioned tents. Most impressive of all for me though was the movement around the stage. Whether directly in character, conducting a puppet or simply moving in and out of shadows at the rear of the space, everyone maintained a purposeful tension in their movement. The lack of seams in the production keeps up the tempo and direction of the performance. Not least in this respect is the conductor, Justin Doyle, who keeps balance, pace and some tricky rhythmic passages in check throughout (there's no-where for anyone to hide in this show, on this stage and with this score). For all its abrupt, fable-like ending it's a coherent, absorbing opera, much enjoyed.