Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Rough for Opera 14, Second Movement, Cockpit Theatre

Second Movement's Rough for Opera series is a vital part of London's operatic life-cycle. Of the spurt of showcase events throughout the capital in the past decade, Rough for Opera's is now something of a flagship, an exemplar. An established series, it exists as a platform apart from the work and artists on show. It also benefits from being professionally run, and from operating in a well-equipped theatre that can deal with manifold musical or dramatic whimsy.

This technical capability was conspicuously valuable for the first two works in a typically eclectic evening's programme. Two Sided Boy investigated the social pixelation of modern life, as a mother frets about her relationship with her son who is immersed in virtual reality. This piece shares technical and material themes with Nico Muhly's avatar-thriller Two Boys (ENO, 2011); the Q&A revealed ambitions for an unconventional additional role for mobile interaction with audience smartphones. Also in the first half, Anna Clock's Constellations created evocative sounds in tandem with Lauren Tata's live projection arrangements - imagine Olafur Eliason's Weather Project vibrating to a soundtrack.

After some discussion inside and outside the theatre, we returned for a more conventionally operatic offering, with Martin Ward's The Sinken Sun (pictured above). Putting the experience of a successful career writing for both lyric and straight theatrical stages, Martin (writing both music and text) has picked out an angle on his interest in the life of writer John Clare. This two hander takes a look at Clare from the perspective of the man and through the eyes of a contemporary reader, so opening up a point of view about the endurance of art, the communicability of spoken word - sung here, of course, the natural medium for the meter of Clare's text. With carefully prepared parts and good singing from the soprano (Billie Robson) and baritone (Paul Sheehan) and staging marked only with the most simple lighting and costume, the text and its rigorous setting were the constant focus. As pianist James Young pointed out, Martin Ward's music has a horizontal profile. The lyricism is in the lines. The harmony is rather wild, a reflection of the untamed countryside, the situation of text and opera, but the sung lines chart a course through it, aesthetically and narratively.

Song, stage and story may not be the operatic-component shooting match in 21st lyric theatre. The versatility - and reliability - of audio and visual projection is now a theatrical given. Additionally, the ubiquity of handheld devices and the reliability of connection mean that interaction may have some future in the theatre.

The challenge is to purpose this capability. The ever-present but unanswered question of showcase events, of which Rough for Opera is at the forefront, concerns the nature of opera itself. Yet "What is opera?" is actually a less interesting question than "What does this creative team consider opera to be?". Irrespective of the means to their end, it must be part of each creative team's working basis that they have a clear idea of the practical-aesthetic manner (as well as content) of how they connect with the audience. Rough for Opera have a sympathetic, open, interested and - judging fro comments and questions, informed - audience comprised not only of friends and followers of the performers; they also have the luxury of a clear-sighted mediator of the valuable Q&A sessions that succeed each performance, with Paul Barker finding value and questions alike in the work. The work on show at last night's typically provoking event stirred up the issue of the intent of each creative group's efforts once again and showed the importance of pursuing some sort of personal answers, if not consensus.