Sunday, March 08, 2009

"Five:15" - February 2009

No, that's not a mistake - we did see this back in February (but Waldorf's been too busy to write it up). Although us giving opera a go this year was down to Bluedog, last year's original Five:15 show caught our attention but sadly too late to get tickets. So, how did we get on with this year's group of five new short pieces from Scottish Opera at Oran Mor...

Well, first up was "The Lightning-Rod Man" composed by Martin Dixon with Libretto by Amy Parker based on Herman Manville's story. Here, our narrator (Richard Rowe) and by extension the audience is asked to choose between faith and science. Should our Man (Daniel Keating-Roberts) rely on his faith in god to protect him from the approaching thunderstorm or should he buy from the Lightning Rod-Man (Phil Gault)? Set in America it had clear relevance in the continuing conflict between religion and science there as evidenced by the debate on Creationism, but I'm not sure it was much more than a joke at the expense of those across the Atlantic. And I do have to say that for a segment of a concept partly aimed at increasing the audience for opera including the line "To begin, our first character, a Man. I think of him as David Henry Thoreau, philosopher of peace and quiet and solitude. Or for those less well read than I, imagine him as a barn-raising, corn-fed farm boy" is hardly going to banish perceptions of intellectual elitism! But the performances were fine and the music was, well it was 'operatic' but I'm not qualified to say any more than that.

"Happy Story" composed by David Fennessy with Libretto by Fennessy and Nicholas Bone, after a short story by Peter Carey gives us unnamed He and She characters (Phil Gault and Lise Christensen). He is obsessed with wanting to fly and She sees his daydreams as a distraction that threatens their relationship - until she realises that she can be included in his dream. And it really is as slight as that. While Waldorf found it captivating and it certainly had an element of charm, I'm afraid for it lacked any substance and seemed to take a long time getting not very far. Again, performances and music were absolutely fine.

"White" composed by Gareth Williams with Libretto by Margaret McCartney was my favourite segment by a considerable margin. Set in a hospital where a foreign cleaner (Emma Carrington) finds a connection with a dying patient (Mary O'Sullivan) and her mother (Arlene Rolph). I'm pretty sure this is as close as I'm ever going to come to getting opera. Beautifully theatrically staged and lit this was a different beast entirely. While the other four segments all sounded similar (to my untrained ears at least) this was very distinctive with its echoes of hospital equipment and for the first time I felt that the music significantly added to the emotion of the piece.

Composed by John Harris with Libretto by Zinnie Harris "Death of a Scientist" based on the final hours of David Kelly who committed suicide after finding himself at the centre of a media storm over weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Here Kelly (Rowe) is portrayed as being tempted into suicide by glamourous Harpies of War (Rolph and Christensen). Had this segment been entirely fictional I wouldn't have had a problem with it, but being based on a real-life tragedy we found it in dreadfully poor taste making it deeply uncomfortable to watch. While not necessarily a taboo subject for a serious drama I have no idea what possessed Scottish Opera to think this was appropriate. However, the performances were impressive.

And finally the Tales of the Unexpected style "Remembrance Day" composed by Stuart MacRae with libretto by Louise Welsh with performances from Carrington, O'Sullivan and Dean Robinson. This seemed the segment that made the greatest effort to break down perceptions and make itself of interest to a wider audience - including an ipod and swearing for amusement value. It also seemed to have the greatest content and actually moved along with considerable pace rather than the frequent (irritating) repetition in many of the other segments. This one had a story to tell and knew how to get us there with a considerable bit of humour thrown in for good measure.

So, what have I learned? Well, I can kind of see why some people can be enthusiastic about opera but I'm afraid I'm never going to be one of them. For me it will always remain a dreadfully inefficient way of telling a story - some of these segments of approximately fifteen minutes amounted to just three pages of libretto. It's all just so S-L-O-W and repetitive and with the exception of "White" the music was so generically 'opera' that it could have been almost interchangeable. And while I applaud any attempt to gain it a wider audience and make it accessible (in cost and perception) I'm far from convinced that their marketing is achieving this to any great extent. Never mind the impact our attendance had on the audience demographics, I'm not entirely sure that Waldorf's grandmother (in her 70s) didn't lower the average age.

That said, I'm genuinely glad we've given it a chance and if the Five:15 concept returns in 2010 we'll probably give it another one. So thanks again to Bluedog who has provided his considerably more informed opinions here.

Five:15 has now completed its runs at Oran Mor and The Hub.
Image by Richard Campbell used with permission

1 Heckle

Bluedog said...

I am so relieved to see a post here: I thought that you had perhaps been stunned into silence!

I am glad that you enjoyed it, and thanks for giving it a try. Like new writing for the theatre, some works well, and some less so, and the audience has to be prepared to allow for this. I don’t think that the opera critics understand this concept sometimes.

I agree with you about ‘White’ actually working best, although the Press have been a bit sniffy about it. Which of course comes back to whether or not you value a Blogger review, or the professionals: we go because we want to, and pay for doing so. The professionals have plenty of interest, but have to go, and go free. It is very different.

Your write-up, as with all your reviews, gives the reader an idea of whether you actually enjoyed what you saw, which is what it is all about. I really would not worry about the technicalities of singing and playing: generally, if someone is struggling with what they are doing, or the piece itself is weak, it is obvious; as it is when the performance is very special. Of all the operas, ‘White’ did the business best – no question.

And audience development: not many new faces, and not many under 40. The ‘man in the seat next to me’ said that perhaps modern chamber opera was perhaps not the best vehicle to bring in new people.