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BREGENZ FESTSPIELE KAZ MADE IN BRITAIN PROGRAMME BOOK 2007

To quote David Pountney, intendant of the Bregenzer Festspiele, "Britain is a marginal country in the history of opera." He also writes that "small, maverick, independent, eccentric and individualistic enterprise is something that gels with a certain side of the national psyche – and this is the root of the tradition of modern English music theatre." Yes, London Contemporary Opera is indeed small, maverick, possibly even worthy of the soubriquet eccentric, but the artistic vision is something infinitely greater than this, witness the LCO launch in Bregenz rather than London. Pountney suggests the ‘underground’ tradition of music theatre in the UK is composer-driven – e.g. the late Fires of London (Max) and the Music Theatre Company (Goehr). LCO is neither composer-driven, nor skewed in favour of the stage director, unlike most of the media representation of modern opera in Britain. LCO wasn’t created merely to showcase small-scale music theatre works by British composers, plugging a gap left by the British opera houses who it seems prefer to stage the nth Verdi in modern dress or to present musicals, despite the wealth of composing talent represented in theatres elsewhere in Europe.

LCO is the brainchild of operatic counter-tenor, Andrew Watts, who has had operatic roles created for him by Olga Neuwirth, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Unsuk Chin and Liza Lim as well as being cast in major houses singing Ligeti, Henze, Guarnieri and other scions of opera today. LCO’s raison d’etre is the dual impetus of exporting the best of British and importing the best of the rest without compromising production values. From the perspective of mainland Europe, Britain is indeed a marginal country in relation to contemporary opera. Performers of the calibre of Andrew and Omar Ebrahim have taken leading roles in Olga Neuwirth’s "Lost Highway" and "The lamb festival", Guarnieri’s "Medea", Dusapin "Perela", Francesconi’s "Ballata", Sciarrino’s "Macbeth", Eötvös’ "Three Sisters", Goebbels’ "Landscape with distant relatives," but if you have a wonderful carbon footprint and only take a two-week beach holiday abroad once a year, none of these will have figured on your radar. It has taken decades to get John Adams’ major operas in the UK and we await with baited breath the UK premiere of Luigi’s Nono’s "Prometeo" at the SBC, an extraordinary work which took the rest of Europe by storm 30 years ago. It’s UK premiere will take place more than 20 years after the composer’s death.

Those of us privileged to participate in the residency in Bregenz which marked the launch of LCO this week had the ideal form in which to consider why contemporary opera attracts a substantial mainstream audience elsewhere in Europe, but is rarely even made available other than on a very small scale in the UK. Four "master composers" – Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Paul Patterson, Liza Lim and Richard Ayres worked successively during the week with a group of young composers and librettists with input from the seasoned new music performers, Omar Ebrahim and Andrew Watts. Each composer worked with a librettist to produce a short music theatre piece (no more than ten minutes) which was showcased as the first half of a recital programme featuring Andrew Watts between the two opera performances. LCO created an opportunity for young composers to gain an understanding of how the roles of composer, librettist and director interweave, tips on word setting and what sort of subjects make a good starting point for opera.

The four contrasting approaches to text setting which we heard illustrated that a text which works perfectly dramatically in its own right is almost impervious to operatic development, rather as some complex new music leaves no room for a choreographer. The ideal is for composer, librettist and director each to make a substantial artistic contribution during the creative process, which ultimately make the opera greater than the sum of its parts. It is even better to have the input of performers during the opera’s creation, just as Liza Lim has during the writing of her next opera, "The Navigator" which is written specifically for the voices of Pia Komsii and Andrew Watts.

The outstanding music theatre excerpt created during this week was a collaboration between composer, Philip Venables (who is currently writing a commission for the BBC Singers) and the librettist, Adrian Osmond who is already a seasoned director of both theatre and opera. Not only was this a profoundly moving text, but it allowed for a highly creative treatment of overlapping layers of soprano and counter-tenor in a lyrical duet over a set of instructions read by Omar Ebrahim as narrator. Whoever said opera singers can’t act? The second half of the concert comprised a stunning performance of Birtwistle "Orpheus Elegies" in which poignant settings of Rilke for counter-tenor articulate a prolonged lament for Orpheus (oboe) and his harp.

The week also included the Austrian premiere of "The Cricket Recovers" by Richard Ayres to a text by Rozalie Hirs (on Toon Tellegen), directed by Nick Broadhurst which was originally commissioned by the Aldeburgh festival. This illustrated beautifully how the singing can and should release the emotional charge in the librettist’s words. This is Richard Ayres’ first opera. It is a valiant first effort. The word setting was superb. What a nice change not to hear a carbon copy from a younger British composer of Birtwistle’s way of setting words. The narrative which spans a series of vignettes is well paced and I wanted to weep at the various depictions of the "phenomena" of mental illness, especially from Omar Ebrahim in his role as the Elephant. Claire Wild gave an outstanding vocal and dramatic performance as the Cricket and the cast as a whole fizzed with energy in what is essentially an ensemble work. Designed by the brothers Quay and directed by Nick Broadhurst who, like many of the most talented Brits in the opera field is now based permanently in Germany, this is a production which should compete with "Cunning Little Vixen" as an opera which appeals on different levels to both adults and children.

For this listener there was only one drawback to Ayres’ Cricket: whilst I applaud his word setting, I felt that his orchestral writing was not of the same quality. I’ve heard an opera where the converse was true, where the heart of the piece was in the pit and the singers’ material seemed almost redundant. In Cricket the instrumental music at worst reminded me of incidental music to a play. Ayres’ use of extremes – three violins with a double bass, piccolo and contrabassoon – created an unusual surreal sound world, which was no doubt his intention. But my removing the middle harmonic spectrum he inadvertently also removed the heart of the music – its expressive core, if you will. It was as if he parted the Red Sea to allow the singers to walk through. It meant there was no continuity of line connecting the vignettes or sustaining the tension when the singers were silent.

But my music-purist’s palate had been satisfied the night before by the Birtwistle. What the predominantly Austrian audience got from this production was a thought-provoking theatrical event. Now comes the hard part: selling such a "must see" event to an audience in Britain. In an ideal world contemporary opera should build bridges between the QEH, National Theatre, Tate Modern audiences and members of book clubs. LCO’s mission (should we choose to accept it) should not be an impossible one: to find the middle ground between the new music ghetto at one end of the spectrum and musicals masquerading as dumbed-down opera at the other.

Miranda Jackson
Chair London Contemporary Opera


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