Monday 22 September 2008

Slightly mad but strangely workable

Opera Shorts, C Central, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2008


Opera Shorts was a fresh addition to the Fringe this year, and a welcome one. Designed to showcase the work of new composers, librettists, players and singers, the two-week show seeks to breathe new life into a seemingly ossified genre, guided by the principle that ‘music and drama are capable of conveying the gamut of human experience within the confines of a small theatre, and an hour to spare’. Talk about total art: it’s an ambitious venture, slightly mad, but strangely workable. 

One of the first Edinburgh musical shows to not be a ‘musical’, Opera Shorts is based on a similar format to the fashionable ‘Future Shorts’ film series, now a nationwide phenomenon. The format is light-hearted, balancing what could be heavy listening for the uninitiated. Artists have long since created audiences for their work, and Opera Shorts is true to form in trying to attract new punters at the Fringe. The uneasy reaction to opera, somewhere between a snigger and a scared smile, comes from a sheer lack of sex-appeal, but one whose roots lie a deeper disassociation between the listening public and what – and how – things are laid out on stage. Opera can certainly communicate truths about the human condition, but first must do the hard work of connecting with its audience as an artform.

The show takes a well thought out approach, comprising four viginittes in one hour, four singers – soprano, alto, tenor and bass – an orchestra of six – ‘cello, violin, viola, clarinets, oboe/percussion and a late addition of electric guitar, a modest set and a careful coterie of costumes. The fact it’s all in English helps. If the aim was to start with something to draw in the listener, then the well-observed opening line, ‘dinner with my mother, an unfortunate affair’ sets the tone well, and the fact that three of the four pieces are about the trials and tribulations of love can only help. The most exciting piece, though, is The Call of Cthulhu by Stephen Flanagan, based on a short story by HP Lovecraft, which benefits from a readily discernable structure and narrative allows the musical innovation to take centre stage. In the final piece, the tenor was noticeable, and the compere and conductor deserves a mention for his seamless and confident performance throughout.

Overall, the only setback was the slight, needless lack of confidence in both performance and the writing, but this is the show’s first year and there is plenty here to build on. Part of the problem with showcasing amateur works – it’s undeniably true – is they have to be sold on something other than them being the best of everything around. Opera Shorts is mature in steering clear of the ‘youth theatre’ label, and more professional as a result. Rejuvenating Opera was always going to be an arduous task, with leading light Thomas Adès with his microtonal scoring for The Tempest  being one of its only high-profile and modernising pioneers. There is a trend in modern classical music towards the arhythmic and atonal, and here, some of the most enchanting scoring played off shifting underlying chords with clear vocal melodies, playing off the more easily recognisable from the less, perfectly. Next year, though, composers shouldn’t hold back from fulfilling Opera Shorts’ impressive and ambitious aim of doing something genuinely and confidently different.


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