Saturday, 11 April 2015

Post-industrial Digbeth: Riots and reconciliation in a warehouse (Birmingham Opera Company, Ice Break)

(Birmingham Opera Company, Andrew Gourlay cond. CBSO, Tippett, The Ice Break

Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company does things no other opera company does. The vision to step in to a derelict warehouse and think of it as a performance place. Place a fine orchestra (CBSO) into this acoustically-unforgiving space, and great singers (one of whom was until recently an American football player, now playing the character of famous world champion boxer), and you might not be too sure what comes out. Add a huge cast from the local community as chorus and actors, and you bring in a new different audience. 
A fancy entrance hall! Move aside Palais Garnier. (Own photo)
There was, however, something ever-so-slightly familiar about it: bright shining lights, but the music wasn’t. Tippet’s Ice-Break isn’t regularly performed but in the awkward category of contemporary(ish- it is older than me) doesn’t revive easily, and it isn’t easy listening. The cast of thousands (or dozens and dozens) are integral to the drama: so good news for this inclusive mission.
Welcome to the United Kingdom (reads the other side). (Own photo)
 The set of course was far too luxurious for Birmingham airport. But with perfume sellers offering squirts of eau de parfum, we had clearly arrived at the unmistakable kind of dreary shopping-centre-with-planes-as-it-happens, which passes for an airport in the UK. Corralled through duty free, adverts for vodka and perfume made it clear and the arrival board and “Welcome to the United Kingdom”.
What accoustics! (Own photo)
Industrial chic comes at a price: some of the CBSO’s beautiful music making evaporated into the ether; some of the words sung so powerfully vanished also. Getting close to the action or musical action was a good idea, and the CBSO were on fine form playing unfamiliar music – if they did Don Giovanni, say, we could fill in the blanks; but this unknown to most (the only recording I could find is out of print). But a fine orchestra made enough noise and the signers managed to project as well as they would in an opera house. And that is no mean feat. 
Rebirth and reconciliation. (Own photo)
Compared with the Tent last year, this was a more cramped space, and the actors, fighting, brawling and raving were really quite scary. At times within a foot or two, crashing in to each other. Nothing could be farther from the bourgeois comfort of an opera house, and it is certainly one way to suspend disbelief.
Vick said he considers the piece to be about ‘identity, race and social cohesion’ (R3 link). So clearly it is timely. And Vick is the change he wants to be in the world. No other opera company brings in people to the fold. There will be some people attending their first (and hopefully not only) opera at these events; others will come to this each year, and nothing else. And they might think all opera is like. Just a bit more enchanted.
Opera brought up to date. (Own photo)
At the same time, BOC is not afraid of contemporary resonsance. The darkness in the libretto and score is brough out through this process

The space, the format, allow these astonishing promenade performances. Music which has been neglected is given life. Nobody else does this stuff. Undoubtedly it works, but for next year, might they do something different again. The most creative force in opera risks going ever so slightly stale. Vick and his team will doubtless rise to the challenge. Vick’s company brings new audiences to opera – in a meaningful sense. The environment may prevent the most scholarly attentive relationship with the score. But who cares? This is just great. 
The Cast were literally having a rave... (own photo)
or a riot - but not in that order acutally. (Own photo)
Full biographies provided here.
Andrew Slater :Lev
Nadine Benjamin: Nadia
Ross Ramgobin: Yrui
Stephanie Corley: Gayle
Chrystal E Williams: Hannah
Ta’u Pupu’a: Olympion
John-Colyn Gyeantey: Luke
Adam Green: Police Lieutenant
Anna Harvey and Meili Li: Astron

Graham Vick: Artistic Director
Stuart Nunn: Designer
Ron Howell: Movement
Giuseppe Di liorio: Lighting
Coductor: Andrew Gourlay
Jonathan Laird: Chorus Master

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