Without a doubt The Freedom Game is like no other piece I shall experience all year. Its unique selling point is that it is a community opera involving literally thousands of people from various schools, choirs and other organisations in Surrey, but it does not survive on that fact alone. It works because the idea is innovative, the music clever, and the choreography deliberately geared to creating strong visual effects through co-ordinating huge numbers of people.
Directed by Karen Gillingham, the opera was created by composer Hannah Conway and librettist Richard Stilgoe to commemorate the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. It sees a Dictator (an excellent Keel Watson) roll back time to remove all of the freedoms that we enjoy today such as the rights to vote, strike and worship freely. Then Sam (Ewan Murphy), a normal boy from an ordinary Surrey family, endeavours to win them back one by one by playing The Freedom Game since computers are the one thing he understands better than adults.
In the gargantuan Albert Hall the action occurred in the arena: the Surrey Arts Community Orchestra occupied the stage, while the vast numbers of singers took up all of the choir as well as some of the normal stalls. With so many people to co-ordinate there were several additional conductors who watched the central maestro (a superb Tim Murray) on monitors and ensured that the various sections of the hall remained in time. The dance routines in the arena involved adults and children of all ages, and worked well for two reasons. On the one hand, they were clearly choreographed (by Katie Green and Hannah Batley) to create mass effects that did not necessarily depend on every dancer being perfect the entire time. On the other, it was obvious that the cast was talented and had been well rehearsed so that the standard of performance was very high.
Conway’s music was interesting as it drew on a wide range of sources. There were traces of Greensleeves, Carmen, Die Fledermaus, The Rite of Spring, Fiddler on the Roof, West Wide Story, Sweeney Todd and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra to be found in it, but it was the fact that the references never felt overt but rather like subtle meditations on their sources that made the score feel so fresh. It certainly did not inspire me to jump on each one in the same way as Debussy claimed he wanted to rise and doff his hat every time he heard a leitmotif in Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Although initially the analysis of rights felt rather shallow as there was no consideration of what made a right a right (I do not recall any references to Hobbes or Locke), as the evening went on the study became more profound. The Dictator employed a policy of ‘divide and rule’ to make Sam jealous that only his sister had a hamster, even to the point where he preferred depriving his sister of hers to being the only one to miss out.
The freedom of speech section explored how one person exercising their right to say as they pleased could be poisonous or offensive to someone else. Similarly, the question was raised of how the right to eat worked in practice since one person exercising it to the limit by consuming everything meant that another starved. At the end the Dictator confronted Sam, arguing that in twenty years’ time everything that had been achieved up to now would be seen as paltry, only to be met with the response that the current situation is not the end product and that the world intends to continue the never-ending fight for liberty.
With the evening also featuring giant puppets representing eight figures who had contributed to the struggle for freedom over the centuries, a turn from the Orchestra of Unlimited Potential and even some audience participation, the co-ordination exercise to bring everything to fruition was remarkable in its own right. Indeed, it seemed a shame that so much effort went into just one performance, although the evening was filmed and will become available on DVD. The Freedom Game may not have been every opera-goer’s idea of a good night out, but taking it on its own terms it proved to be a most impressive and enjoyable creation.