Virtually Opera Season @ Battersea Arts Centre, London, 29 May 2004
Resonance was a collaboration between Opera North and Leeds Met Studio Theatre. The blurb tells us that "opera is a hybrid; a potent and sometimes unstable mixture of sounds, words, pictures and movement". Although I don't personally agree with the "unstable" part of the ideology, Resonance nevertheless proved an interesting mix of both interesting and illuminating ideas while at times fake and forced.
The programme consisted of three staged works by three established and widely-followed contemporary theatre companies: Faulty Optic Theatre of Animation, Forced Entertainment, and the duo Paul Clarke and John Binias.
Faulty Optic's piece contained both puppetry, a live percussionist and singer, a recorded score and a streaming video. Although sometimes this mix of completely different media distracted from the story (based on a Victorian cautionary tale), what in the end worked best were the brilliant puppets, whose faces and gestures enabled complete sympathy on the audience's part.
Forced Entertainment... Well, this was their piece: a wall-sized back screen with sentences appearing featuring celebrities and well-known personalities in strange, outrageous, or everyday situations. For instance, "Jennifer Aniston suffering from jetlag". For 25 minutes. Perhaps relying on shock value a little too much, the work (which was accompanied by a three singer soundscape) nevertheless elicited some very varied responses. Both my friend and I sat through it. One of us thought it was an enlightened social critique on society's obsession with celebrity and our invasion of their private lives through the media. The other thought it was a waste of lottery money, insulting to the audience and rather pretentious.
Which one of us had which reaction is not what's important. What's more telling is that we spent a good three hours dicussing it afterwards and going into the next few days; any work which provokes such different talking points has probably succeeded in its ambition. Most interesting.
Finally, Clarke and Binias' piece (The Weather Man) was based on the remarkable life of Robert Fitzroy, who among other things encouraged Darwin in the forming of his theses, promoted racial harmony in New Zealand between the natives and the settlers, and introduced weather forecasting to the world. Through spoken word (mainly in a narrative style), a wonderful 40 minute score for string quartet, and a tenor whose lines only sometimes emerged from the texture, the piece would have worked remarkably well had it not been for the unnecessary walking about of the two vocal performers, especially towards the end.
It would maybe work better in a concert performance than a quasi-staged setting, but with the lack of actual sets the performance relied too much on movement. A display of lights on each musician's chair attached on the other end to a battery pack in the centre of the stage was an interesting concept, but at the end the "cutting" of one of the wires to turn a light off was maybe a little forced. At times, though, I was genuinely mesmerised.
Opera North and Leeds Met had set out to "represent what living artists are engaged in and respond to new disciplines afforded by technology". So have they succeeded?
Yes and no. Yes, because the first two pieces created a world in which technology became an integral and necessary object in storytelling.
No, however, because The Weather Man would have worked so much better without it.