While established composers like Harrison Birtwistle continue to delve into antiquity for inspiration, new opera seems largely to ignore the effects the internet can have on ordinary lives, although it seems full of promise as a subject for the medium. ENO had a go a couple of years ago with its Met collaboration Two Boys but the results were disappointing. Despite the youth of its composer Nico Muhly, he and his not-so-young librettist Craig Lucas came across as old duffers asking “So, what’s This Internet Business all about then?” and treating the material in a distinctly old-fashioned and uninspired manner.
Anne Chmelewsky takes an altogether lighter approach with her one-hour one-woman piece The Looking Screen which, after visits to Edinburgh and the Bush Theatre, popped up in a revamped version at Kings Place, as part of its “Off With Their Heads!” comedy season.
Her treatment is operetta-ish with a constant refrain of “on-la-la-line,” as she mines the subject for gags while playing with the idea that online “popularity” (the word “friend” given a whole new meaning) is more a sign of loneliness and desperation than anything else. As 27 year old Annabel craves connection with a reality that’s more than virtual, the sadness and potential tragedy merely bubbles below the surface. Instead there’s plenty of witty use of every digital tic going – you can be sure that LOL and OMG are going to make an appearance before long – set to a delightfully Debussyian piano score (Children’s Corner rather than Pelleas et Melisande).
Fast-rising mezzo Clare Presland, who made a splash in ENO’s production of John Adams’s Klinghoffer study recently, gives a bravura performance of great comic detail, ably supported by Elizabeth Challenger on piano (with the occasional verbal contribution). Presland keeps the audience constantly entertained and, if the hard edge of desperation is a little too hidden, it’s the material that doesn't allow her to go deeper.
But then that’s appropriate for the genre Chmelewsky has chosen. The digital arena is still in its infancy and governments, businesses, artists and individuals struggle with some of its implications. Hopefully, young composers will continue to explore its dramatic and musical potential (perhaps one day we’ll get the full-blown Sarah Kane treatment?). In the meantime, Chmelewsky’s quick-witted and only mildly satirical piece has a lot going for it and deserves some viral reach.