Exactly ten years ago I visited Battersea Arts Centre to see eight short operas performed by Tête à Tête.
Exactly ten years ago I visited Battersea Arts Centre to see eight short operas performed by Tête à Tête. It was a memorable evening, and showed what a good idea it is to encourage young composers to write quarter-hour-long pieces, instead of making a whole evening of their first attempt at opera. Inevitably, of course, there is a workshop aspect to these occasions, and anyone who feels understandably suspicious of workshops is likely to give them a wide berth — and thereby to miss a good deal of hit-and-miss pleasure. There is also, and increasingly since New Labour has tightened its tyrannical, repressive, soulless and mindless grip on the nation’s cultural life, a sense of boxes to be ticked, if these events are to receive any kind of public support or funding. How does it rate for ethnic diversity? Any meaty roles for the differently abled? Any awareness, in this most elitist of art forms, that popular culture must be incorporated somehow, or at the very least grovellingly acknowledged?
Tête à Tête itself, though its artistic achievements have been intermittent, has had a largely successful decade, the climax being, for me, the full-length opera Push!, the chronicle of a day in the life of a maternity ward, set to often brilliantly apposite music, and performed with vocal and histrionic virtuosity. Now, at the Arcola Theatre, a reclaimed factory, needless to say, just off Kingsland High Street in Dalston, a comparable but independent festival of contemporary opera — Grimeborn — has been set up. Midway through there was a single performance of Aaron Copland’s The Tender Land, which I haven’t heard since its disastrous European première in Cambridge in 1962, but at the last moment I wasn’t able to see it; instead I saw two evenings of brand-new operas, staged by companies of which I hadn’t previously heard. The extrinsic features are invariable: after a good deal of pushing to get a seat that gives you some view, the piece begins with a ten-minute delay, and the first 40 minutes turn into an hour. Filament mounted Ride, in which ‘a cycle courier, a pedestrian and a tango dancer make a 15-minute love story. Amidst the pedestrian rush and clatter of office life, there are unexpected moments of magic’. This company ‘predominantly fuses devised physical work with polyphonic vocal music, making original music theatre for both traditional and non-traditional theatre spaces’. I saw plenty of physical work, but the polyphonic vocal music was nothing more than various characters singing independently. There was plenty of élan. Perhaps the 80-minute version, promised for the autumn of 2010, will be more perspicuous.
ElectrOpera staged Phedre, an ‘experimental opera using electronic music, samples and sound collage’. Once more it was hard to tell what the words were, and the samples, etc., didn’t make attractive listening by themselves. A cliché of this kind of opera is that the characters all begin by babbling, which can be quite amusing for a couple of minutes, and then someone suddenly says something intelligible, in this case, ‘I remember you,’ and it seems as if the composer has recreated speech from sound: but we have had enough of that. The four singers in this piece were highly proficient, but it outstayed its welcome, and in any case remained unclear about what it was up to.
A couple of evenings later there was a much more heartening experience. Arcola Youth Opera presented The Savage, based on a story by David Almond. The director, Thomas Hescott, had been working with a group of young local people for three weeks — people who, I think, have no theatrical ambitions or experience; and together with the composer Nick Sutton they had worked out a text and the music for four professionals to play. The story is about rejection, violence and identity. Maybe it is not less trite than that sounds, but it was performed with such disarming gusto by this cast that you couldn’t help finding it fresh and enlivening. Clearly you wouldn’t want a group like this to adopt Rada accents, but they retained their normal accents to such a degree that again I was frustrated in trying to follow exactly what they were saying. And they were, mostly, speaking, while the musicians, relegated to somewhere behind the scenes, carried on independently.
I’m not sure whether you can count it, therefore, as an opera, since the various elements didn’t interact. I’d have thought that if opera is to be created in this way, one of the first things to do would be to think of, or steal, some good tunes which the audience could go away humming — surely the first thing that will turn people on to what is still thought of as a recherché art form. Yet in what I saw this week there wasn’t even an aspiration to melody: the whole emphasis was on presenting a situation, and the musicians might as well have been playing one thing as another.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated September 5, 2009