Opera may have a reputation in the UK for being ‘toffee-nosed and corporate’ but the genre is blossoming across the country. Steph Power discovers five new distinctive operas opening in the next few months
Different kinds of opera have blossomed around the UK in recent years, from the heritage-conscious to the experimental; from intimate shows in pubs and galleries to ambitious, main-stage productions. And this summer offers a feast of premieres with five distinctive new chamber operas opening at venues from South Wales to Suffolk.
It seems fitting that these should appear hot on the heels of George Benjamin’s eagerly anticipated third collaboration with playwright Martin Crimp: Lessons in Love and Violence, which has just run at the Royal Opera House in London. Not only did their superb Written on Skin revitalise the UK scene after its premiere in 2012, but the new work’s title seems to encapsulate the very essence of opera.
Elements of love and violence are among the themes explored by the five composers of these new chamber operas in different ways. Their themes, styles and approaches might diverge, but each agrees that opera is a penetrating, thoroughly contemporary means to articulate ageless truths about the human condition.
The first to premiere is the least orthodox. Rhondda Rips It Up! opens on June 7 at Riverside Theatre in Newport before it heads on tour. It is a bold venture for composer Elena Langer and the Welsh National Opera, who eschew the main stage this season for myriad smaller venues off the beaten opera track.
Langer won international plaudits in 2016 for Figaro Gets a Divorce, a darkly satirical, 20th-century sequel to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. “Rhondda is very different,” she says and, as a cabaret-vaudeville-music-hall hybrid, it’s “impossible to categorise” – not unlike the woman whose life story it celebrates.
Lady Rhondda, Margaret Haig Thomas, was a prominent Welsh suffragette and campaigner who paved the way for equal rights for women. In the centenary year for partial women’s suffrage in the UK, this “thigh-slapping romp through the world of suffrage and song” has an all-female cast and creative team, including librettist Emma Jenkins.
Langer’s approach is historical and she highlights the social comedy of Rhondda’s eccentric, aristocratic life while saluting her independent spirit. “The libretto has jokes and it rhymes – it’s pacy and I use lots of contemporary dance rhythms: foxtrot, ragtime and early jazz,” she says. “It’s about bright, wonderful characters who have ideas and who fight for something.”
As Rhondda was well aware, challenging social norms can be highly dangerous, and Emily Howard’s To See the Invisible – which opens at Snape Maltings as part of the Aldeburgh Festival on June 8 – explores the personal cost of transgression.
Based on a science-fiction short story by Robert Silverberg, the setting is a future authoritarian state in which a man is punished for an undisclosed crime of “coldness” and declared invisible. At first he almost enjoys his position outside of society, but there’s a quick “descent into unpleasantness”, as Howard puts it, when he tries and fails to interact with others.
This is Howard’s first full-length opera, and her second collaboration with librettist Selma Dimitrijevic following Zatopek! in 2012, a mini-opera about Czech long-distance runner Emil Zatopek. Admired for her lush scores, often inspired by scientific ideas, she relishes examining “a perennial human problem whereby people exclude certain others from a group for some reason”.
As she points out, while the treatment of outsiders seems especially topical: “There’s a kind of abstraction in that this could apply to a lot of areas – and I like that about opera as a form, so we’ve kept it very mythical.”
For each of these composers, opera comprises a rich, dramatic field in which the real and the imagined can be interwoven in scenarios at once specific and universal, ancient and new, according to the perception of the viewer.
For Tansy Davies, it’s about walking between worlds; demonstrated by the title of her acclaimed first opera,
Between Worlds, staged three years ago, in which she and librettist Nick Drake imagine the experiences of people trapped in the World Trade Centre on September 11, 2001.
Her new work Cave, a London Sinfonietta and Royal Opera co-commission that opens on June 20 at Printworks in London, is their second collaboration. A grieving father seeks to survive alone in a desolate wasteland after the world is devastated by climate change. In search of his lost daughter, he goes to a cave they once used to visit where he performs rituals and mysterious voices respond.
As Davies explains: “We’re not quite sure if it’s nature speaking to him, or his daughter, or both – or something else, maybe inside himself.” Of the five operas, hers most consciously engages with contemporary socio-political concerns: “I try to create a balance of energies through music. It could be that modern opera is responding to our times and it’s creating a space where we can be more reflective without losing the drama or losing reality.”
By contrast, David Sawer is drawn to the interaction of narrative and character. A leading opera composer steeped in European music theatre, he says: “If you ask somebody on the street – in this country – what an opera is, they’ve got this idea that it’s a sort of toffee-nosed, corporate thing. But actually it’s a vulgar art form. It’s not pure at all, and it needs to be bashed about.”
Sawer’s latest opera, with librettist Rory Mullarkey, is The Skating Rink, which opens in July at Garsington Opera, based on the novel by Chilean author Roberto Bolano. A body is discovered in an abandoned mansion on a skating rink built with embezzled funds for a young, ex-Olympic skater by her admirer.
Told through three narrators’ eyes, the unfolding intrigue spans love, violence and more, with themes about outsiders. “All the characters are on the margins,” Sawer says. “I really like their flaws and passions and wanted to write something that felt real. You want to take the audience on a story, so I’m showing how the characters behave. I’m holding up a mirror, and the audience can take away what they think.”
In character terms, there’s nothing like a clash of titans for lighting an operatic fuse. In Pushkin – The Opera at Grange Park Opera the same month – performed by the Novaya Opera Company – Konstantin Boyarsky treads hallowed Russian ground with a work that explores the fraught relationship that existed between the beloved national poet and tsar Nicholas I.
A principal viola at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, Boyarsky was “raised on Pushkin” in Russia – while librettist Marita Phillips is a direct descendant of both Pushkin and the tsar. So this is a personal, historical odyssey and, as Boyarsky explains, his opera is readily approachable with “tonality, a lot of melodies and the idea of old Russian romance”. It is also underscored by themes of power abuse and the suppression of creative expression.
Given today’s strained diplomatic relations between Russia and the UK, Boyarsky is reluctant to draw direct parallels. But while he is “hoping we don’t have unfortunate events that make arts connections difficult between our cultures”, it is a reminder that opera can shake perceptions in a way that can have ramifications in the ‘real’ world.
Rhondda Rips It Up! opens on June 7 at Riverside Theatre, Newport; To See the Invisible opens on June 8 at Snape Maltings; Cave opens on June 20 at London’s Printworks; The Skating Rink opens on July 5 at Garsington Opera; Pushkin – The Opera opens on July 11 at Grange Park Opera