Almeida Opera – Man and Boy: Dada

Man and Boy: Dada

Kurt Schwitters – John Graham Hall
Michael – William Sheldon
Mother – Vivian Tierney

Almeida Ensemble
Paul McGrath

Michael Hastings – words
Lindsay Posner – director
Jeremy Herbert – design / video creation / live mixing

Reviewed by: Nick Breckenfield

Reviewed: 17 July, 2004
Venue: Almeida Theatre, London

What is it about artists in opera? Andriessen’s “Writing to Vermeer”, Sondheim’s “Sunday in the Park with George” (that’s George Seurat), Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini”, Hindemith’s “Mathis der Maler”, Pfitzner’s “Palestrina” and Nyman’s own “Finding Goya” spring to mind, let alone fictitious artists such as Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca”. And now Nyman is back in the artistic fray with his new chamber opera, a threesome, accompanied by ten-piece ensemble (single strings, wind, brass and percussion) about the founder of Dadaism Kurt Schwitters.

Man and Boy: Dada is a wonderful 100 minutes of modern opera. It was given its UK première (on the 15th) as the third and final birthday celebration at this year’s Almeida Opera (Michael Nyman is 60 this year), and was beautifully staged by Lindsay Posner in Jeremy Herbert’s design based around thirty-five wooden blocks, arranged in five rows of seven like a contoured chess board, backed by a screen showing kaleidoscopic video images which, for once, actually enhanced the tale being told on stage (images of buses, tickets, garages and representations of art, although – I suspect – not really Dadaist).

While there was nothing particularly new in Nyman’s music – minimalist pastiche a-go-go – it had a softer edge than much of his music and also a greater sense of wit, inspired by Michael Hastings’s first-ever libretto (they are already engaged on a second opera together). I wonder if this is because Nyman felt so close to the subject: both he and Hastings had collected bus tickets and cigarette cards as children. Indeed the work is inspired by the possibility that – had Nyman been ten years older – he might have had a chance meeting with the émigré German artist and founder of Dadaism (although later expelled from the movement) Kurt Schwitters – and they may have battled over a bus ticket. The boy in the opera is also called Michael.

With probably the finest boy’s role since Britten, Michael is first a rival to the old man who also wants the woman’s ticket as they sit on the bus: Michael for his ticket collection and Schwitters for his metz artworks. They meet again and Schwitters fraudulently acquires a ticket the boy has picked up (arguing he has no money and will be arrested if the boy doesn’t give the ticket to him). Slowly a friendship develops – including a hilarious scene where Michael joins Schwitters in vandalising a stone-carved lion (albeit artistically) – and that friendship is then extended to Michael’s mother.

Typically Schwitters’s outsider’s view of Britain is most comically portrayed in his regular references to the ‘Great British cup of tea’ while tenderness burgeons between the German artist and Michael’s mother. Yet, perhaps inevitably, Schwitters’s concentration on his abstracted art means that there is a bittersweet ending. When Michael says he wants a bike for his birthday, Schwitters obliges, but it is a Dadaist bike, crumpled and useless. A beautiful final pair of scenes sees man and boy conspiratorially stealing into a bus depot to find Michael the last bus ticket that will complete his collection. But, having escaped Germany, the darkened expanse reminds Schwitters of his incarceration there and he flees. Michael goes to his house and finds Schwitters cleaning the floor with a toothbrush (part of the punishment that used to be meted out to him). Despite the avowed statement of continued friendship, you realise that both people have in that instant moved on. Indeed, Schwitters went to the Lake District and remained until his death.

There was something touching and moving about the tale, and if the music wasn’t any real step forward (and perhaps a little loud – the Almeida allows little distance between musicians and stage and although the words were crystal clear they could have been louder against the rather thick ensemble writing), it was at least non-interventionist. A self-knowing self-reference resulted in a classic bit of Nyman, an insinuating tea dance that must have followed every audience member home! With utterly outstanding performances of William Sheldon as the boy, Vivian Tierney as the mother and a multitude of other parts but most especially John Graham Hall completely convincing as the mass of contradictory emotions that must have been Karl Schwitters – brilliantly evoking the performing soundscapes that were his live Dadaist poetry in his “Sneeze Poem” and “Doodlebug Song” – this ended an excellent 2004 Almeida Opera season on a real high note. Just the ticket, in fact!

Man and Boy: Dada is sure to continue – and is already scheduled for Prague performances in December, in the very theatre that “Don Giovanni” was first performed.

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