An abstract piece of performance art with angelic singing and provocative discoveries, Voice(less) is a part of Tête-à-tête: The Opera Festival, which lasts for two weeks and showcases the most daring new work in opera all across London. Rosie Middleton performs this one-woman piece to question the power of the voice and what it’s like to be left voiceless — whether due to oppression from society, a medical condition or a psychological struggle. This double-billed performance is as abstract as seeing the famous pile of bricks at The Tate, and inevitably evokes different responses in each person. For me the cyclical and repetitive nature of the piece feels jolting and I yearn for more clarity from this intriguing message.
Both part one (“My Voice”) and part two (“Cover Squirrel”) are constructed from verbatim interviews that play over the top of the performance. Meanwhile Middleton repeats selected words and anguished sounds in a plaintive, operatic tone to highlight moments from the interviews. Her hauntingly resonant sound evokes an enigmatic sense of tension that makes one curious to listen to the words of the interviews. However, this overlapping of sounds is somewhat frustrating as I struggle to truly hear what is being portrayed in the interviews. This chilling effect is unfortunately lost in the difficulty of knowing where the ears should work hardest. Despite this, Middleton performs with an admirable power throughout and holds the stage unequivocally.
First off is Michael Betteridge’s “My Voice” that consists of four interviews from female or non-binary individuals exploring their experience of voice loss. We witness Middleton acting as our interviewer as she musically questions and repeats words heard on the recordings. I particularly appreciate the commentary on people who speak just to fill time. This point really demonstrates the value of silence when nothing needs to be said. The interviewee then explains how this is magnified when speaking another language, due to the difficulty of translating. So if it isn’t worth saying, don’t say it. Betteridge has formed a darkly reflective piece that conjures a stream of confusion and delight.
Following this is “Cover Squirrel”, composed by Laura Bowler, who approaches feeling voiceless by combining voice and recordings with more grating sounds on an untuned violin. Bowler looks at the different ways our voices are heard, whether that’s recorded, singing, spoken, broken or unintelligible. It’s almost like a battle between each medium of the voice and Middleton frantically jumps from one to the other. We really see the frustration of her feeling of voicelessness in her eyes as she gets louder and gazes with even more intensity into the audience. This creates an infectious itch within the audience that mirrors her yearning to finish a full sentence. Whilst at times it can be inharmonious, Bowler’s section is filled with angst and desperation that says a lot about the nature of finding one’s voice.
Voice(less) is an avant-garde piece of artwork that will resonate differently with each individual. It’s comparable to standing in front of a surrealist painting and not knowing exactly what the artist is trying to depict, but feeling that, in some way, it speaks to you or it doesn’t. For me, I leave yearning to listen more to the interviews and feeling frustrated by the words I wasn’t able to discern. Perhaps an ironic interpretation is that I want to hear more from a piece that expresses a struggle to say more. Overall, it leaves my mind buzzing and is a disquieting addition to the daring Tête-à-tête Festival.
Voice(less) played RADA Studios until 27 July. For more information, see the RADA website.