July/August 2018 – upcoming London opera – Grimeborn 2018 revives Britten, Turnage and Smyth (plus Ravel, Donizetti and Foreman & Silverman’s ‘Elephant Steps’) and premieres Keith Burstein’s ‘The Prometheus Revolution’ plus diverse-source multi-cultural operas from Ruth Chan, Juwon Ogungbe, Sayan Kent, Daniel Saleeb and Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian (24th July to 26th August)

15 Jul

Grimeborn 2018, 24th July to 26th August 2018

London’s mockingly-titled ‘Grimeborn’ festival (based at Dalston’s Arcola Theatre) stages opera with a difference: pocket budgets, but broad-field coverage and bold new work both in terms of staging and composition. Amongst the body of work being offered up this summer are premieres (Keith Burstein’s ‘The Prometheus Revolution’ and the cluster of diverse new works which make up ‘Mozaic’); revivals (most prominently the Arcola’s own new productions of Britten’s ‘Rape of Lucretia’ and Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Greek’, but also including Ethel Smyth’s ‘The Boatswain’s Mate’, Gaetano Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ and ‘Rita’, and Maurice Ravel’s ‘L’Heure Espagnole’); plus reconfigured Offenbach and Buxtehude, some mixed’n’themed repertoire concerts, kids shows, infiltrations of jazz and rock theatricals and the first British performances of the “occult, surrealist rock-opera extravaganza” ‘Elephant Steps’.

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Fulham Opera's 'The Prometheus Revolution' - 7th/8th/10th August 2018Dealing with the new material first: Fulham Opera are premiering ‘The Prometheus Revolution’, the first new opera by composer/librettist Keith Burstein since his anti-War On Terror work ‘Manifest Destiny’. The latter blew up a pile of controversy at the 2005 Edinburgh Fringe with its suicide bomb-vest scenes, its agit-prop metaphysics and its pungent criticism of Western motives, and eventually led to a wrangle over free speech and alleged promotion of terrorism at the Royal Courts of Justice.

‘…Prometheus…’ looks set to extend at least some of the ideas behind ‘Manifest Destiny’. Like the earlier piece, it’s a politically-heated metaphysical examination of where we are as a society, and what we might do about it, It’s set in an alternative present which closely mirrors our own, with democracy decaying into corrupt war-mongering authoritarianism and economic meltdown, with a peace movement “standing between tyranny and chaos, (although) they too are cleft by internal struggles”. Inspired by the 2012 Occupy Movement’s “99% versus the 1%” ideology, it’s billed as a “dark parable” of “star-crossed lovers, rebellion and revolution against the backdrop of a corrupt political class… shot through with pathos and ironic humour.”

As with ‘Manifest Destiny’, you can also expect more of the vigorously tonal Burstein approach to music and tunes, with a post-Britten-and-Berg score additionally “laced with the sounds of vaudeville, Broadway musicals and pop ballads.” It’s arranged for piano and singers: you’ll have to imagine the intent of a full hovering orchestra.

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Using a mixture of live and recorded music, the Mozaic Opera Showcase stages new works by black and British Asian opera creators (and, it seems, female ones) drawing on stories “yet to be seen and heard in contemporary Britain… from West Africa to Armenia to ancient China and beyond” and encouraging us to “hear opera traditions from around the world mixed with jazz, Chinese orchestra, edgy contemporary classical and more.” Three days of workshops aimed at “empowering BAME artists and associates to create new, diverse operas” will be followed by two days in which six such works are presented.

As well as the new ‘Red Seed’ (by rising theatre polymath Sayan Kent), there’ll be Hoc Opera’s production of ‘Occō’s Eternal Act’ by composer Daniel Saleeb and librettist Oge Nwosu. A ‘Huit-Clos’-ian chamber drama for five singers and eight players(previously staged at the Barbican and the V&A) its titular Occō is “trapped in a purgatorial space peopled with four significant characters from his life. He can’t escape them so he makes them perform, over and over again, for his imaginary audience…”

From Sheffield, West African-inspired theatre company Utopia are bringing down their’Pied Piper of Chibok’. Composed by eclectic Anglo-Nigerian composer Juwon Ogungbe, who balances Western opera with Afro-jazz and pop (and with a libretto by Ariya director/writer/producer Olusola Oyeleye), it conflates the European legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin with the horrific real-life story of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria who were kidnapped by Boko Haram.

The Myaseen Collective is presenting ‘1000 Songs’, a collaboration between visually-slanted harpist/singer/composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and multi-instrumental singer Ziazan (who’s providing the libretto). In this “story we’re gradually going to tell” (which appears to explore the interrelated contemporary rise of neo-fascism and of woman-silencing), a woman “escapes a mob attack and locks herself away. She speaks to no-one but her tame nightingale, until she forgets how to speak – and only sings.”

 
Film, television and theatre composer Ruth Chan, known for everything from Ghost Orchestra to work with Dario Marianelli and the RSC) makes several contributions. There’s a revival of her 2014 mini-opera ‘Rain’, a collaboration with librettist Elaine Ruth White, in which Barry, the threatened head of an incompetent English water company gets into profound, potentially life-changing conversation with his Sudanese cleaner Asha (a woman from a region “where women have to walk miles to polluted streams and wells, risking the dangers of rape and death to fetch water for their families”).

 
Also being performed is Ruth’s ‘Between Constellations’ on which she worked with librettist Zoë Palmer (Musical Rumpus) and dramatist Jennifer Farmer. This was a semi-finals winner in Pittsburgh Festival Opera’s ‘Fight For The Right‘ initiative, “a global commissioning competition for female composer and librettist teams to create original music dramas inspired by themes of girls and women transforming their lives through education.”

Finally, Ruth’s also contributing a revival of ‘Turandot Reimagined’ – a partly-Mandarin, Yuan Dynasty-set version of Puccini’s opera (which she’s re-arranged to a new libretto mostly by Simon Wu)/ It was originally staged three years ago by Tête à Tête, in association with Portsmouth’s New Theatre Royal and the SOAS Silk and Bamboo Chinese Instrument Ensemble. Hopefully the latter will be up and involved again for the Dalston performance…


 
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Elsewhere, current events and undercurrents are making their presence felt on the Arcola’s two homegrown revivals. Benjamin Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ has been in the general repertoire since its 1946 premiere, but the new Arcola version (directed by Julia Burbach of the Royal Opera House, who’s recently made a mark with revelatory productions of ‘Madama Butterfly’ and ‘Tosca’) links its story of decadence, virtue and ravishment to the outrage and repercussions around the #MeToo movement. (The press release reads “in Rome, 510 BC, Lucretia is sought out in the night by the prince Tarquinius. In Dalston, 2018 AD, a man and woman invite you to watch a re-enactment.” I’m not sure where they take it from there…)

Since its own arrival in 1988, Mark-Anthony Turnage’s four-handed multi-character piece ‘Greek’ has also made its own mark on the repertoire. For this year’s Arcola version, original adapter and stager Jonathan Moore returns to direct. It’ll be interesting to see how the piece has aged. Its old, seething vision of the East End (based around Steven Berkoff’s bare-knuckled, gutter-mouthed reimaging of the Oedipus legend) may have been slightly blurred and dissolved by the odd bedfellows of gentrification on the one hand and white flight, but it’s world of territorial café kings and hair-curling working-class invective should have kept some of its dramatic power intact regardless, calling up memories of the 1979 Winter of Discontent and the imminent, bloody birth of the Thatcher era.

Fulham Opera's ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’, 9th/11th August 2018The second of Fulham Opera’s two Grimebourne offerings is a piano-and-voices, Italian-language, contemporary-setting version of Gaetano Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ – the repertoire staple (with its famous “mad scene”) of a woman ground up between the feuding rages of men. Perhaps it’s tied in with the fresh feminist reading of ‘The Rape Of Lucretia’, but if operatic narratives of tragic and tormented women (being ravished and/or losing their battles) just gets your goat, you might prefer to see another Donizetti piece, ‘Rita’, appearing as half of an Opera Alegría double bill (with Maurice Ravel’s ‘L’heure espagnole’). Both pieces showcase, via new libretto translations by Lindsey Bramley (who’ll also be performing the piano accompaniment), strong female opera characters possessing both wit and agency. In ‘Rita’, the fiery landlady of an Italian inn and her intimidated husband Peppe find the already fragile state of their marriage further tested by the arrival of her first husband, previously presumed dead. In ‘L’heure espagnole’, Concepción (the cheerfully unfaithful wife of a Toledo clockmaker) embarks on a farcical day of attempts to smuggle her assorted lovers into her bedroom, each wedged into the case of a grandfather clock…

Spectra Ensemble's ‘The Boatswain's Mate’ – 30th/31st July, 1st August 2018

Likewise, you might enjoy ‘The Boatswain’s Mate’. Revered by feminists and musicologists alike for her determination, her musical daring and her fullhearted involvement in the Suffragette movement, Edwardian-era composer Ethel Smyth wrote and staged several of her own operas. Dating from 1914, ‘The Boatswain’s Mate’is a battle-of-the-sexes comedy set in a Margate to which “young and old alike have flocked… for summer loving, healthy air and strolls on the promenade. But, at a quiet pub set back from the seafront, the landlady has a nuisance on her hands. She’s confronted with a suitor who simply won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. When he comes up with a last-ditch plan to win her heart, our formidable heroine gives him more than he’d bargained for…” Spectra Ensemble present a rare revival set during the 1952 coronation and the height of post-war seaside culture, scored for voices and a piano/cello/violin trio (and celebrating, in part, the hundredth anniversary of female suffrage in Britain).

Patrick Kennedy Phenomenological Theatre's ‘Elephant Steps’, 20th to 22nd August 2018
I’ll close the first bit of the preview with a quick look at Patrick Kennedy Phenomenological Theatre’s European premiere/fiftieth anniversary staging of ‘Elephant Steps’, a total theatre work from composer Stanley Silverman and librettist Richard Foreman (whose New York theatrical adventures have been described as “disorientation massage” and in which “music, light, images, movement, graphics, films, incense, machinery, props and performers are incorporated into a spectacular mix.” The first of seven alternative operas which Foreman and Silverman wrote together between 1968 and 1990, ‘Elephant Steps’ is a bizarre night journey following the ailing Hartman, apparently under malign spiritual attack from the suspect guru Reinhardt as he seeks to free himself, is strongarmed into false confessions, and is guided by mysterious Elephant-Angels. Silverman’s eclectic score includes elements of rock, ragtime, madrigals, Roma violins and Rodgers & Hammerstein, while Foreman’s words and concepts make an intoxicating stew of film noir, surrealism, paranoia and dream-logic imagery (all mixed with Kennedy’s new staging inspired by David Lynch, Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau).

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More Grimeborn to follow in a later post… meanwhile, here are the dates for the shows listed above. All performances at Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London, E8 2DJ, England.

  • Arcola Theatre presents ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ – Monday 23rd to Monday 30th July 2018, Wednesday 1st to Saturday 4th August 2018, times t.b.c – information here and here
  • Spectra Ensemble presents ‘The Boatswain’s Mate’ – 30th July to 1st August 2018, 8.00pm – information here and here
  • Opera Alegria presents ‘Rita’ & ‘L’Heure Espagnole’ – 3rd & 4th August 2018, 8.00pm / 5th August 2018, 5.00pm – information here and here
  • Fulham Opera presents ‘The Prometheus Revolution’ – 7th, 8th, 10th August 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Arcola Theatre presents ‘Greek’ – 8th to 18th August 2018, times t.b.c. – information here and here
  • Fulham Opera presents ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’ – 9th & 11th August 2018, 7.00pm – information here and here
  • Mosaic Opera Collective presents ‘Mosaic’ Creative and Produce-orial Workshops – Monday 13th, Tuesday 14th and Wednesday 15th August 2018, 10.00pm to 6.00pm – information here
  • Mosaic Opera Collective presents ‘Mosaic’ Showcase 1 (‘Red Seed’/’Rain’/’Occō’s Eternal Act’/’Pied Piper of Chibok’) – Thursday 16th & Friday 17th August 2018, time t.b.c. – information here
  • Mosaic Opera Collective presents ‘Mosaic’ Showcase 2 (‘Between Constellations’/’Turandot Reimagined’/’1000 Songs’) – Monday 13th, Saturday 18th & Sunday 19th August 2018, time t.b.c. – information here
  • Patrick Kennedy Phenomenological Theatre presents ‘Elephant Steps’ – 20th to 22nd August 2018, 7.30pm – information here, here and here

 

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