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Opera at the Boundary

Grimeborn Opera Season Arcola Theatre, London E8

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival Riverside Studio, London W6

August 2008


‘Opera at the Boundary’ it is in more ways than one since, for those of us who live outside London, Dalston and Hammersmith are both probably just about at the bounds of travel for a late night return journey to be feasible. These two innovative festivals present their audiences with works from the front line of opera performance. 


Grimeborn Opera was launched last year, and it’s second season stretches for an ambitious three weeks offering a wide mix of styles. It opened in retrospective mood with two short operas that are hovering on the fringe of standard repertoire.


Firstly Menotti’s 1939 sit-com entitled The Old Maid and the Thief, which having been commissioned and conceived as an opera for radio is very suitable for staging with limited resources.   Directed by Nina Brazier the plot came up as fresh and entertaining as the day it was written, with convincing performances by Sarah Pring (Miss Todd), Sally Harrison (Miss Pinkerton), Fabienne Wood, (Laetitia) and Nicholas Butterfield (Bob).   The chamber orchestra, conducted by Timothy Burke, was a shade overpowering in a relatively small enclosed space and pushed the singers into greater volume than was necessary, probably at the expense of clarity of diction.


Stephen Oliver’s A Man of Feeling is one of the most challenging short (20 minute) pieces for two singers and pianist.  The soprano plays the part of a soprano, wrapped up in her vocal problems and her career, and the baritone has a total of 11 roles to cover, including seven of her twenty-four doctors and her ill-destined lover Fritz.   Anthony Baker’s direction made excellent use of the large floor area allowing the soprano (Lisa Wilson) to distance herself when rehearsing with her pianist (James Young), and giving John Savournin the necessary space to develop his multiplicity of characters. 


The repertoire for 6 August was listed as being “suitable for children” though perhaps unsurprisingly very few turned up for an evening show starting at 8pm.  A pity, as the first item Jessica Dannheisser’s The Elephants Child proved to be a delightful adaptation of Kipling’s classic fable, combining dance, song, puppetry and story telling into an effective drama to entrance both young and old.   


Although part of the same bill, Joseph Finlay’s working of Picasso’s play Desire Caught by the Tail, with its setting in violent underworld of 1940’s occupied Paris, was almost certainly aimed at an “after the watershed” audience.  There was some very nice singing from the quartet of participants: Benjamin Seifert, Vanessa Lanch, Gemma Dudgeon and Rebecca Goulden.   Director, Max Webster, told me that it had been thrown together in the shortest of rehearsal times, but the presentation had an authentic whiff of period decadence about it and the cardboard city set was decorated with recognisably Picasso-esque graffiti.


By comparison Tête-à-Tête is a fully fledged company now celebrating its 10th anniversary.  It is confident enough to present works that are still at an exploratory or fragmentary stage, offering its audience a real taste of the many ways in which contemporary opera is branching out.   

My evening’s entertainment started with an unscheduled bonus, a short extract from David Bruce’s Push! with Louise Mott singing most expressively as Angela and accompanied by pianist Tim Murray.  Later in the evening came extracts from work-in-progress by Catherine Kontz and Ellan Parry: Twitching: a bird in a gilded cage in which Parry was the siffleuse, and two contrasting excerpts from their Electra with Sibyalla Meienberg, full voiced in the title role, and Veronique Nosbaum majestic as Clytemnestra in a floor length white wig.


The finale of the evening was by far the most impressive item, the concert premiere of Brian Inglis’ opera The Song of Margery Kempe, based on the autobiography of a medieval housewife and visionary.    It is written for a single, unaccompanied singer and opens quite simply with the plainchant hymn Veni, Creator Spiritus, and that persistent little tune entwines its way through the entire piece. Life was far from unexciting in 15th century Norfolk, and Margery endures visions of demons as well as confronting a trial for heresy before her spiritual journey reaches inner peace and entry to paradise.   An unaccompanied musical monologue imposes severe difficulties for the singer, but they were triumphantly surmounted by Lore Lixenberg. 


Both festivals continue* and further reports will be added to this page.


Serena Fenwick


*Grimeborn Opera Season runs from 04 to 23 August 2008 – details at www.arcolatheatre.com

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival runs from 31 July to 17 August – details at www.riversidestudios.co.uk