Opera Shots 2010 – New operas by Orlando Gough, Nitin Sawhney & Jocelyn Pook

Orlando Gough
a ring a lamp a thing – Opera in one act to a libretto by Caryl Churchill [Royal Opera commission: first performance]

Melanie Pappenheim (singer)

James Macdonald – Director
Paul Arditti – Sound design
Andrew McDonnell – Electronics programmer and operator

Nitin Sawhney
Entanglement – Opera in one act to a libretto by the composer [Royal Opera commission: first performance]

Ranjana Ghatak, Tina Grace, Lucita Jules, Mieko Shimizu & Nicki Wells (singers)
Louisa Fuller & Everton Nelson (violins), Rebecca Low (viola), Ian Burdge (cello), Camilo Tirado (tabla), Lisa Mallet (Bansuri flute)

Nitin Sawhney – Director
Nick Hillel – Visual projection design
Soutra Gilmour – Designer
Charles Balfour – Lighting designer
David McEwan – Sound designer

Jocelyn Pook
Ingerland – opera in one act to a libretto by the composer [Royal Opera commission: first performance]

Laura Moody, Loré Lixenberg, Olivia Chaney, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Melanie Pappenheim, George Ikediashi, Mike Henry & Mikhail Karikis (singers)
Jennymay Logan (violin & voice), Mandy Drummond (viola & voice), Laura Moody (cello & voice), Sarah Scutt (clarinet, accordion, saxophone & voice)

Jonathan Williams – Music director
Tony Guilfoyle – Director
Soutra Gilmour – Designer
Charles Balfour – Lighting designer
Video Designer – Dragan Aleksic


Reviewed by: Andrew Morris

Reviewed: 18 June, 2010
Venue: Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

The Royal Opera couldn’t have known when programming this triple-bill of short new operas that England’s lacklustre World Cup performance against Algeria would coincide so perfectly with Jocelyn Pook’s operatic exploration of the world of football fans. England’s fixture assured that anyone with more than a passing interest in the ‘beautiful game’ would the latest series of opera experiments a miss. The current overload of football, both at the Linbury Studio Theatre and on the nation’s TVs, could lead to a dangerous number of sporting puns, such as how many of these three shorts are ‘shots on target’ and the like. As groan-inducing as these might be, they’d have serious competition from some of the bad jokes in Pook’s “Ingerland”.

“Ingerland” is the longest and last ‘shot’ in an evening which seemed to become slower as it progresses. Royal Opera’s admirable aim is to challenge the boundaries of opera by commissioning composers without previous operatic experience to write almost whatever they like. All three prompt the question at some point as to what exactly an opera is, though in more than one case the answer might be that it isn’t this. Opera is defined so broadly that it becomes variously divorced from conventions of narrative, musical style and voice-type.

Happily, the evening begins with a real triumph. Of the three pieces, Orlando Gough’s “a ring a lamp a thing” looks the least appealing on paper. A female voice generates all of the musical texture, with her lines looped and distorted to produce harmony and counterpoint. If it sounds a rather stark premise, it proved to be by some way the most inventive and varied of the works. Singer Melanie Pappenheim is at the centre of a familiar domestic scene. Her leather sofa sits on a large carpet and is surrounded by household objects including an angle-poise lamp, a dated nest of tables and some wooden children’s toys. Her first lines lack clear meaning and the arpeggiated and repetitive music doesn’t promise much. But quickly we are led in an unexpected direction. She’s singing about a genie’s lamp and suddenly an everyday object (a cushion in this case) is transformed into something supernatural. Smoke pours from it as Pappenheim’s unnamed character struggles to think of something to wish for. Lighting brilliantly matches the music’s shifts in tone and as we learn more about this woman’s frustrated life the music grows in complexity. Pappenheim’s vibrato-less voice feels a little stretched at times but over the piece’s half-hour span she creates a character struck with indecision and a violent anger directed at her absent husband.

Nitin Sawhney is probably the most familiar of the three composers. He’s a musician defined by his indefinability: not merely pop musician, DJ, film composer or producer; he’s all simultaneously. His work with orchestras such as the LSO has incorporated much drawn from Indian classical music, which is the overriding language of his 22-minute contribution, “Entanglement”. At the outset, this seems the most appealing. His stated aim of exploring the moment between a pregnancy test being taken and the result being confirmed is an emotively promising one. But alarm-bells sound as his explanation turns to his use of quantum theory, calculus and Schrödinger’s cat experiment in a programme note that takes several readings to comprehend. It didn’t get any clearer in the performance in which boxes were sat upon by five identically dressed women, each lit from above with faces in shadow. Behind them, instrumentalists play behind a screen onto which is projected shimmering green and blue light which perhaps suggest the changing colours of the pregnancy test. The multi-lingual text seems barely connected to Sawhney’s explanation and the sparse movements of the singers are similarly abstract. The only clue is an embarrassingly obvious motion of hand to stomach denoting pregnancy given by the first singer to appear. Sawhney writes that each woman represents a different possible test result, but after 22 very long minutes I couldn’t say what those results might be.

The longest and final ‘opera’ is Jocelyn Pook’s noisy and excitable football themed piece, “Ingerland”. This was the work that had generated the most publicity, newspapers reporting with surprise that opera was to take on the nation’s favourite sport. A light-hearted tone is established immediately as the instrumentalists (who also serve as backing vocalists) are wheeled to the front of the stage to eye-up the audience before being pushed to their places. Film of football fans and interview clips detailing their devotion are shown intermittently while the singers elaborate on their lines in a manner familiar from Steve Reich’s Different Trains. “Ingerland” is the only piece here to use operatic voices and for the first twenty minutes or so it’s amusing and inventive. But it lasts for nearly an hour, by which the time the joke has worn very, very thin.

Indeed, it’s a vein of humour rather at odds with the seriousness of the interview clips, something which begins to feel uncomfortably mocking of the devotion of real fans. A shrill episode about WAGs is lazily one-dimensional while the footballers themselves are venerated as gods: a number of passages consist only of various players’ names sung in sequence. It’s neatly summed up by a paean to Zinedine Zidane, which consists of his name sung repeatedly while the cast in turn reveal folded photos of their hero, ending with the line “Zinedine Zidane is an inspiration … and an alliteration.” That’s about the level of the whole thing. Pook’s music at times underlines the quasi-religious dimension of the sport with settings of words from the Latin mass, but is otherwise ceaselessly diatonic. That the piece is most reminiscent of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” again raises the question as to whether this or any of these three works should be considered as opera.

That’s not to say that this isn’t a welcome and promising format, but there seems at its heart an embarrassment of the sound of contemporary music. Each of the composers featured is known for their work outside of the normal channels of contemporary classical music and it is set to continue: 2011’s Opera Shots include contributions by former Python Terry Jones, playwright and critic Bonnie Greer, and former drummer with Police, Stuart Copeland. Engaging with young and emerging composers might make fewer headlines, but may produce something more consistent and original.

  • Further performances at 7.30 p.m. on June 19, 24, 25 & 26
  • Opera Shots

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