Let’s be honest, opera has a tough time of it. As an art form, it is either derided as an overpriced irrelevance or reviled as the province of ‘elitist’ poshos. Dido and Aenas? Tristan and Isolde? Pfft! Who are these ancient whinge-bags with their overblown emotional problems? And what are they wailing on about anyway? Of course, such sweeping generalisations bear little resemblance to the reality. Yet the stain of the cliché remains: opera is too snooty, too expensive, too boring.
Enter Opera Erratica: an ensemble of singers, composers and artists determined to drag opera kicking and screaming – or rather, singing and dancing, into the 21st century. Not by dumbing-down those attributes that make opera unique, but by drawing on an array of artistic disciplines and pushing at the boundaries of operatic performance. Their latest production, Triptych, is a postmodernist plundering of traditional and contemporary operatic practice that trains its sights on the future, even while casting a fond eye on the past.
Triptych is based on Puccini’s 1918 composition, Il Trittico; this loose trilogy of contrasting one-act librettos becomes a springboard for Opera Erratica’s genre-pastiching trio of performances. By combining traditional vocalisation techniques with modern technological practices, director Patrick Eakin Young presents a highly mediated world in which the organic instrument of the voice collides with the artificial realm of recorded conversations and live video-projection.
In Triptych, the function of ‘voice’ transcends the boundaries of communicating narrative and relaying emotion. It is redefined as the locus for examining conflicts around identity and representation within opera as a whole. This problematising of ‘voice’, both recorded and performed, begins with composer Christian Mason’s Reunion, in which a group of nun’s incant their rites, whilst a recorded interview between a man and woman plays over the top. In A Party, old-fashioned vinyl recordings of English language lessons become the hilarious motor for an orgiastic comedy of manners, in which the sung dialogue is determined by the sounds we hear on the scratchy recording. Finally, The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered utilises ‘voice’ as reportage in a delicate and haunting account of the real-life disappearance of an architectural photographer. While the rather esoteric Reunion failed to connect, A Party and The Tall Office Building are genre-exploding delights that succeed in provoking new and exhilarating possibilities for the form.
All of this takes place within Gavin Turk’s contemporary art gallery set, complete with arch-modernist works of art displayed and mounted against the white interior. Interestingly, these artworks are regurgitated wholesale from Turk’s own repertoire, including his blue neon door ‘Port (Blue)’ and various oil canvasses. This unashamed self-promotion works because its function is primarily critical rather than aesthetic, serving as a counterpoint to the opera unfolding on-stage and provoking us into considering questions of production, value and authorship relevant to the performance as a whole.
Opera Erratica’s determination to redefine the parameters of operatic performance extends to their utilisation of ‘Body/Opera’: a hybrid training technique that draws upon contemporary dance and physical theatre practices. The singers become co-creators in the overall composition of the opera, dissolving the divisions between singer and composer and creating an integrated ensemble of performers.
Opera Erratica are a company with a mission. Brave, intelligent and provocative, their restless pursuit of innovation is matched by an equally ambitious creativity. Whether it’s enough to convert the sceptics, only time will tell. But what remains certain is that this is a company worth watching out for. A triumphant triptych indeed.
Triptych is playing The Print Room until 7 June. For more information and tickets, see the Print Room website. Photo by Richard Hubert Smith.