Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Morgen und Abend, Haas

I went to see Georg Friedrich Haas' new opera Morgen und Abend this week. I was wound into its cocoon of glissando-woven harmonies and felt a little mesmerised by it all. What remained in my memory were technical things from production and performers: how minimal design means that set-projected surtitles really can work; the staging working hand in glove with the premise (a single light making the same elliptical traverse as the sun during the day - just because you know where it's going when it sets out doesn't diminish it's tension necessarily); the unimpeachable singing of Christoph Pohl trumping all other doubts and delights.

Rite of Spring, Sasha Waltz Company

Last week I went to see the Sasha Waltz & Guests Company dancing a triple bill at Sadler's Wells. Actually, I was, like many, there to see the company dance the Rite of Spring, or Sacre [du Printemps] as they were calling it.

It was a terrific experience, a company some 50 or so strong giving themselves over to the bizarre meters but irresistible rhythm. I noted a few things: the most impressive was how the formation of small groups doing similar things in different places on the stage gave a very strong, almost gravitational sense of the space. It felt like projecting the topography of the space, as it they were creating tension between them by dancing in synch. I hadn't felt as pulled into something since I went to see Donald Judd's sculpture at Tate Modern.

One very interesting impact however was when the culmination of the piece was taken over by a solo dancer. This is in the programme of the work itself, which describes a chosen individual dancing him/herself dead.

What was fascinating was my reaction to the decision to have the dancer dance the final stretch naked. Initially I simply assumed that - as in opera or theatre productions where characters remove all their clothes - it was simply a poor choice, a nuclear option to heighten an already hysterical pitch of drama. I was wrong. The dancer who then doubled the tempo and traces of the previous spasm-like choreography had little inhibition, with good reason. Her body was totally of a part with the content of the music.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Rough for Opera #13, Cockpit Theatre

Rough for Opera: three operatic extracts in an early state of development. As ever.

The Death of Kodak is presented in blackout so that creator Ed Baxter could flash a graphic score image in the faces of members of the Resonance Radio Orchestra - the retina-branding image forms the basis for the improvised sound world that follows. There was a huge palette of sound from this sophisticated ensemble which ravished the ear in the manner of mature Portishead and with organic instrumental stylings that recalled early 1970s Miles Davis or the great psychic canvases of Pink Floyd.

On top of this Richard Scott and Rodney Clarke recited a distended libretto of information within a 'downstage' space defined by hi-vis ropes. The drama came from the assumption of the information by the singers who declaimed with poise and portence.

Returns had the same priority, giving a concert performance of James Cave's score. As one of the performers pointed out, the music offered overwhelming dramatic impetus, so the augur for a staging in due course is good. Again the text was indistinct but the emotional freight of the work was, by virtue of the performance of both instrumental ensemble and singers, undeniably strong.

After the break, Acceptance Speech was an opposite sort of experience from the first half. Helen Noir's observation-conflagration of the cute, comic and bathetic vignettes that one is familiar with from awards ceremonies was very entertaining. A multimedia, multidisciplinary theatre piece, the ambition of the work may have overloaded the performers (operating lighting and sound whilst in character) but again promises much for an expanded version. It was good to see the unique, confident La John Joseph again (in rather different circumstances).

Q&As were handled by Prof. Paul Barker. The evening was introduced by Second Movement's Nicholas Chalmers. It's worth noting that for all that Rough for Opera is a testing ground for ideas it can also be, as it was last night, entertaining and rather fulfilling.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Unpicking the 'price' of an opera ticket

This morning's catalytic comment was fairly typical - a throwaway presumption of the exorbitant cost of an opera ticket on BBC Radio 4's Today programme "we haven't even talked... about the Royal Opera House - you need a mortgage for those tickets".

Just a few things to offer here. First, casual comments of this type from people in the media are one of the most pungent ways of re-inforcing the idea that opera tickets are all highly expensive. Opera tickets are not all highly expensive. Many (not 'some', many) are between £10 and £30. You can read a digest of prices at this useful (and virally popular) blogpost.

But the issue is, inevitably, more complicated than a straightforward comparison of basic cost. So:

Secondly, the low cost should be seen in the context of 'sitting about 400 miles away' (to use further illustrative hyperbole concerning the distance from a cheaper seat to the stage from the same item on today's Today programme).

The unique feature of opera is that it is rendered acoustically. The audience hears unmediated orchestral playing and singing. One of the marvels of good operatic singing is that it can be heard clearly and with fine emotional definition, even from a great distance.

To re-iterate: it may be more difficult to see a production from the back of an auditorium than from the front - it is not more difficult to hear. Moreover it is wonderful to hear fine, emotionally defined singing (particularly quiet singing) in the same acoustic space at whatever distance from the performer.

Thirdly, in order to retain public investment alongside other theatres producing commercially self-sustaining musicals, opera must demonstrate it is different. Part of this is masquerading as 'high art'. This comes with connotations of being difficult to understand; sitting at the top of a number of tiers of understanding. Easy shorthand for complexity in a market is value, so 'difficult to understand' may be seen as 'expensive'. This usefully succinct blogpost makes clear the irony that, "opera must look expensive to qualify for the funding that keeps it cheap."

Consequently other parts of the operatic experience - food and drink served in bars, what to wear - acquire a sense of being difficult to understand. As the art itself appears to have a 'code' that needs be worked out, so does the front of house refreshment and social requirement (i.e. 'dress code').

Ironically, this appearance of 'code' can make opera all the more appealing. Many people go to see and opera as a treat, precisely because of the connotation of exclusivity*. In this country such a transaction is typically bound up with notions of entitlement and class. Class distinction is also the natural breeding ground of the idea of 'code'.

One might also have a look at a simple but effective project that has tackled the issue of a 'code' of exclusivity: #LastNightAtTheMet is a fashion blog that takes photos (right) of those attending the Metropolitan Opera. The self-confident, class-blind audience clearly dress for an evening out: within their own parameters of style and comfort; without subscribing to the awkward poles of 'expectation' or political point-making.

Finally a further point on conversational shorthand concerning opera. Just as 'black tie' (dinner suit, white shirt, black bow tie) is a shorthand for operatic dressing up, so the resonant sound of a trained singer's voice is a shorthand for opera. This may be why the media so often refer to crossover singers as 'opera singers'. It's about the basic sound. It's not a precis of the performer's repertoire, experience or circuit (though the crossover market thrives on exploiting that perception).

Hard-working operatic performers should continue to resist lazy categorisation and blanket generalisation of their work. We should also bear in mind the deeper-rooted, difficult to untangle reasons why these easily-exploited misapprehensions exist.

*This has been reinforced in recent blockbuster films: Mission: Impossible 5 and Quantum of Solace both feature sequences shot in opera houses as shorthand to colour the social standing of characters.