Performed in the beautiful setting of the Brighton Dome, Eye to Eye is a fifty minute musical composition, blending choral singing and jazz music, which explores the experience of motherhood. An interesting premise certainly, but exquisitely executed in the world premiere of this Brighton Festival commission, produced in partnership with Glyndebourne.
Sheila Hill has written an abstract libretto that captures her feelings as a mother upon first hearing the heartbeat of her baby, to the concerns she experiences as her child grows. These thoughts are married with verbatim quotes from her own child – Hill sought to take note of the “strange, moving, poetic, shocking, strikingly wise” things that he said when he started talking, and uses them here to illustrate the unique experience of watching your child grow. The lines acquire a particular resonance when performed by a children’s chorus, who perform the piece with great skill and professionalism.
Soloist Melanie Pappenheim has a warm realism to her tone that isn’t overly operatic and suits the role perfectly. Her solo moments separate themselves from the collected voices of the chorus seamlessly, all orchestrated masterfully by conductor Sian Edwards, who controls the sound and the silence with such skill. The chorus themselves create a beautiful blend of sound – the all-female voices pitched perfectly for the piece. Considering much of the choral singing is completely unaccompanied, the sound is still rich and full and moving. The movement of the chorus, choreographed by Laura Caldow, is really inventive and creates a familial feel when the adult and children’s chorus arrive on stage. Throughout the piece, the movement serves to refocus our attention but is paced calmly so as not to be jarring. Similarly, Jean Kalman’s lighting design creates a dramatic mood and adds a sense of theatricality to the proceedings that feel appropriate and engaging.
The real highlight for me are the jazz musical interludes provided by the band, led by Byron Wallen, who plays the trumpet with incomparable skill. The band are small, consisting of guitar, bass, drums and trumpet, but command a masterful presence, not just due to their omnipresent position at the top of the stage. The sound fills the large venue and gathers you up inside it; I was certainly content to listen to the sophisticated stylings of these skilled musicians for much longer than the scheduled performance time.
At fifty minutes long, the piece is an accessible step into watching live classical music performances. The number of children in the audience was certainly a positive sight to behold, and I think that speaks to how broad the appeal of this show is. It’s not your traditional opera so to speak – it combines appropriate modern music genres and elements to make a piece that is more about communicating an experience than it is taking itself seriously as a classic work.
Eye to Eye played at Brighton Dome Concert Hall as part of Brighton Festival until 12 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Brighton Fringe website.