sun 12/07/2020

OperaShots, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

OperaShots, Royal Opera

OperaShots, Royal Opera

Three major composers lose their operatic virginity and score in football-themed event

The result however was neither as provocative nor as genre-breaking as it believed itself to be. We marvelled at technological effects, enjoyed some good tunes and were thoroughly entertained – but then the same can generally be said for an evening at an Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical; a work staged in an opera house is no more an opera than a man in a stable is a horse.

It was clear from the husky opening warblings of the bansuri flute that we were in familiar easy-listening Sawhney territoryYet the Royal Opera House’s project is an interesting one. Choosing successful but non-traditional composers – composers more used to writing in different styles, or for film scores and computer games – and setting them loose in this most convention-driven of genres is exciting and, while the results did not quite sound the death-knell to tradition that Gough might have envisaged, they did provide a fascinating foil to the contemporary works more usually heard on this stage.

Opening the evening was Gough’s a ring a lamp a thing. With a witty and elegant libretto by frequent Gough collaborator Caryl Churchill, this one-woman show challenged the excess typically associated with opera. Gone was the huge orchestra, the large cast, leaving just a single unaccompanied voice – the impressively talented Melanie Pappenheim. With the aid of live looping technology, Gough was able to transform this fragile, stripped-back entity into an endlessly flexible echoing chamber, setting up duets, canons and increasingly complex riffs – its patterns mirroring those of thought: some taking hold, fanning out exponentially, others dying undeveloped.

With its simplicity of set and straightforward narrative, all focus was on the music and its dramatic capacity – a brave and successful choice. Coming in at just 33 minutes, a ring a lamp a thing was the perfect music-theatre miniature but, being deliberately limited by its own forces, it’s hard to see how such techniques might translate into a full-scale operatic structure.

Next it was the turn of Sawhney’s (pictured right) Entanglement. Despite a daunting programme note describing how his work sustains “…an accelerating tempo curve at changing rates while maintaining a precise number of beats and co-existing time signatures”, it was clear from the husky opening warblings of the bansuri flute that we were in familiar easy-listening Sawhney territory.

Drawing influence from Indian ragas, as well as the textures of Japanese and European traditions, the music was both pretty and banal – certainly nothing we haven’t heard from Sawhney or his many knock-off world music imitators before. The least successful piece of the evening, Entanglement’s multi-lingual musico-philosophical meanderings and leisured modal ostinati fell rather flat against the more energetic narratives of Gough and Pook. Over-producing his sounds (all singers and chamber ensemble were heavily and distortingly miked) Sawhney’s work lost the immediacy of live performance, casting aside the most integral element of opera.

The first 20 minutes of Pook’s Ingerland had me totally hooked, totally ready to proclaim that this was the work I had been waiting for all evening. Using video projections, recorded sound and a large cast of singers and onstage musicians, she deconstructed our national obsession with football, framing it by turns as primal ritual, religious rite, relationship substitute and destroyer of family unity.

With tongue firmly in cheek, her cast strutted and cheered their way through music cleverly derived from the chants and conversations of real-life football fans – techniques originally pioneered by Steve Reich and his American colleagues. Recognising the hyperbole that lies at the root of both opera and football – their amped-up, matter-of-life-or-death, all-or-nothing stakes – Pook simultaneously poked affectionate fun at the conventions of both worlds, much to the delight of the audience. As a witty throw-away gesture Ingerland was fabulous. Drawn out to almost an hour, it belaboured its (not unduly complex) point beyond its dramatic limits.

OperaShots was an evening that shocked, not because it was outlandishly progressive but because it was so unapologetically conservative. All three works were essentially very simple – based on conventional harmonies and built around that (ba)rock structural staple of the riff; there was nothing in the evening’s music not taken to more interesting extremes by Philip Glass, John Adams, Mozart or Purcell. Three shots were fired – two glancing blows and one clear miss. Final score: Opera 1 OperaShots 0.


Agree with you completely. Excellent review.

Hello Alex, What a bizarre review... First of all I would point out that all three opera shots were using radio mics and that there was NO distortion whatsoever on Entanglement. I have produced enough albums and recorded enough artists to know that. I watched and listened carefully to the whole performance. At one point the radio mics that the royal opera house used did have some trouble with a connection but that was swiftly rectified by the efficient and hard working staff. Secondly, it troubles me greatly that you are so reductive and dismissive of the bansuri flute. It is not "easy listening" as you describe it with your very parochial review but has thousands of years of cultural development, of which you appear quite ignorant. Additionally, you have said that the music of my opera was typical of me. No it was not. It employed a very complex system of mathematics in order to ensure that no two bars of the ostenati you mention were the same. In addition the music drew from Spanish, Japanese, Indian, English and french traditions as did the libretto. The orchestra are some of the finest players in England and the singers are outstanding. The audience expressed their appreciation of that to me and the other musicians both in and outside of the auditorium. They also responded very well to the underlying idea which you don't even touch upon in your review. Alex, your opinion is your perogative but please don't inflict it on others laced with clear and rather offensive ignorance. It's kind of embarrassing.... Cheers Nitin

Er, no Nitin, Alexandra does not once dismiss the bansuri flute or the "thousand years of cultural development", she just dismisses your utterly idiotic music.

Much as I dismiss your "utterly idiotic" comment, Paul... If you are going to put something in quotation marks, please make sure it's a quotation...

Nitin - you did use the phrase "thousands of years of cultural development". And how do I know? Because I just copied and pasted it from your remarks. So lets not get over-excited. Secondly, you leap to the defence of the musicians, the technical staff and the history of your scored instruments - none of whom has been attacked in Alexandra's review. She merely questioned the music itself. Also, I believe that it is possible for a fascinatingly complex mathematical structure behind a piece such as this to be completely and utterly lost on an audience who have no idea (and sometimes little interest) in those sort of finer details. Don't take it so personally - they are there to enjoy and experience. I read Alexandra's review in the spirit of a positive account of what took place whilst remaining a tad sceptical as to the genre-challenging nature of the entire billing. Surely, raising such a discussion was the whole point of the evening? I think this should all serve to encourage you further to "push the envelope" further and keep doing what you're doing!

Thanks for your comments Nitin. Hopefully such a lively and frank discussion will help persuade people to go along to the show and make up their own minds. I'll be interested to hear the feedback as more people hear the music for themselves. I think Will makes an important point when he identifies the difference between the conceptual theory of a piece and the live experience of hearing it as an audience member. I kept being put in mind of isorhythmic motets of Dufay or Josquin when i was listening to Entanglement - the dense mathmatical patterning taking place that even with a score and a basic framework is really very hard to pick up aurally.

And thanks for your gracious response, Alexandra. I hope people come to the show and see for themselves too. It’s interesting that you talk about the experience of the audience listening to the piece as many members kindly asked where they could buy CD’s of the music last night. That in itself was very gratifying. Regarding the mathematics, my motivation in reiterating that aspect of the score was in relation to your “easy listening” comment about my work in general. I find that a contentious denunciation as I write extensively for film, theatre, dance, videogames, orchestras and television, as well as my own albums, and take all of that work very seriously… maybe sometimes a little too seriously! My response was not, as I wrote initially, to condemn your opinion (which I’m sure is as valid as mine or that of anyone else) but simply to point out a number of facts I felt were inaccurately represented in your review. I was a little disappointed to see that you had little more to say of the bansuri than to refer to it as “warbling” when it was played by one of England’s most brilliant and virtuosic Indian classical flautists. Additionally, I do find the idea of referring to the music as “world” and “meandering” quite reductive when I know for a fact that no one has ever put together a piece like this before. Nevertheless, I thank you for your words of encouragement and appreciate your thoughts and comparisons. To Will I would just point out that the rather abusive “Paul” below was not accurate in his quotation as he referred to “The thousand years” as opposed to “thousands of years”, which is actually what was quoted. I don’t feel that to correct such a huge error in time is overly pedantic when the writer had no issue in dismissing my entire life’s work as “Utterly idiotic”! ☺

Where's Orlando and Joss? I feel they should come in at this point and continue this online slanging match

I thought Melanie Pappenheim' singing of Orlando Gough's piece was a real tour de force. Jocelyn Pook's Ingerland was terrific and hugely entertaining. Could have been edited a bit for this evening (bits like the WAGS liposuction section for example) but it also could and should be expanded to a full length evening - funny, innovative and full of ideas. I'd love to see as a full length Opera. Wish they could have used some contemporary World Cup references in there. Nitin's piece was pretty and if anything overly tasteful and agree the mikes did put an unneccessary layer between the audience and the performances. But it made a suitable interlude in an evening I would recommend anyone to see.

I was at tonight's performance [26 June]. The Orlando Gough piece was a solo by Melanie Pappenheim, and it had me nearer and nearer to the edge of my seat as I realised about the loops technique being used, and its implication for the performance. I began to realise how the performance was carefully balanced. But it wasn't just a technical piece, and the music and theatre worked really well. It was unsettling. The Nitin Sawnhey piece was not as challenging for me, and I didn't see where the Shrodinger's Cat idea was relevant if it was only clear if you read the programme notes - and I didn't have them. As for the sound - it wasn't distorted like electric guitars are, so that's maybe a confusing word for Alexandra to use, but I found the reverb made everything too nice, and although I can tell that Nitin doesn't think it's what he's doing, perhaps it's helpful to read how it comes over to people. The slow beginning [with the flute] was superbly played, but the music was more comfortable to listen to than thought provoking or challenging - or anyway that's my view. In places, it sounded very similar in feel to 'chillout' world music like you hear in travelogue soundtracks, and the polished sound system and reverb made it sound more like a CD than perhaps it was meant to. I also didn't understand the stage set. The last piece was excellently performed but I was not so sure about the football theme. Sometimes the piece protrayed the emotion of football and sport, and at other times it seemed to make fun of it - but in an ironic way that was a bit harsh. I thought it was bit like the Jerry Springer opera in some ways. I have to say that it was a good evening overall.

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