Opera Shots - Linbury Studio, 18 June 2010
Opera Shots is the Royal Opera House's latest attempt to broaden the appeal of opera. Three contemporary composers not known for their operatic leanings have each written a short piece, none of which most people would recognise as 'opera' in the Tosca (or even the Jerry Springer) sense.
First up was Orlando Gough's A Ring A Lamp A Thing, a tour-de-force from Melanie Pappenheim. With little more than a sofa and a handbag, she holds the stage alone for its whole half hour length. In Caryl Churchill's fragmented libretto a visit from a genie is spliced with everyday reminiscence. The random associations are dreamlike. Pappenheim's looped and layered vocals (mixed live, I think) disorientate further. It's a rather shapeless piece that could be chopped up and messed around without losing much. But it's also highly theatrical, the closest the evening came to conventional opera in the sense of integrated music and drama.
In contrast, the formal structure underlying Nitin Sawhney's Entanglement would have been obvious even to those who hadn't read the programme notes, where the erstwhile chartered accountant explains how he combined his five female voices according to precise mathematical ratios of exponentially accelerating tempos. The form is ingeniously matched to the subject matter, the moment of uncertainty between taking a pregnancy test and discovering which one of the several possible outcomes will be the result.
It's slim subject matter to stretch out over twenty minutes, and indeed if there's one thing the work lacks, it's dramatic tension. Scored for string quartet, tabla and bansuri flute, the formal beauty of the music is masked by a deceptively soothing, spa-treatment quality that will wash over the inattentive listener (like the woman behind me, who pronounced it "a massage for the ears").
Sawhney's own impenetrable multilingual libretto (we were given translations, but of course they were impossible to read in the darkened theatre) adds little. The direction, cool minimalist park and bark (again, Sawhney's own) is either brilliantly appropriate or uninspired, I couldn't decide which, but decidedly inessential in either case - you'd wouldn't lose much by shutting your eyes the whole way through. The one thing I really didn't care for was the projection of the amplified vocals only from way above the stage, an alienating effect rather like watching a part mimed while someone sings from the wings.
Finally came Jocelyn Pook's Ingerland, a series of songs not bound together cohesively enough to call an opera, but entertaining all the same. Its timely subject is football, and its team of thirteen tackled everything from the tribalism and emotional absorption of the fans to the more trivial concerns of the WAGs.
Some of the texts were taken directly from filmed interviews (also played between numbers), some were brilliantly arranged terrace chants, others just touched on related subjects. It scored highest with its inspired pairings of texts and musical treatments, like the liturgical Zinedine Zidane, or bass George Ikediashi's gravely-intoned evaluation of the sport: 'boring'. A late diversion into the subject of plastic surgery introduced a feminist element that didn't mesh well with the rest of the work, and there were other moments which could have usefully been edited out from the near-hour's length. Indeed, like Gough's work, the numbers could have been stirred up and reordered without any loss, and at times only Tony Guilfoyle's inventive staging glued them together.
Maybe nothing in this programme is the future of opera, or even an iconoclastic alternative to opera, but it was a lot better than I'd expected (OK, feared), and taken on their own terms each piece had something to offer. It's also worth pointing out that this sort of work doesn't fit conveniently into either theatre or concert hall, so would probably never be seen if the Royal Opera House didn't get behind it. In its own way, and durability aside, that's perhaps more important than the umpteenth staging of Carmen.