The Royal Opera House presented two new works for their Opera Shots scheme, aimed at giving composers who are new to opera the chance to create something fresh - a new perspective. The concept is a bold experiment; unfortunately the results are not always bold and experimental.
Graham Fitkin has been on the contemporary classical scene for over twenty years, and has carved a reputation as an interesting breed of ‘minimalist’. Fitkin’s work Home was a dance piece with accompanying singers, which would certainly stretch the boundaries of opera, if it didn’t squarely fit into the genre of contemporary dance. The scenario depicted a happy, loving couple pottering about their home, only to be rudely interrupted by some soot (‘mysterious dark forces’) coming down the chimney. The music turned evil and the couple had a tough time getting on, at which point leaves were blown into the home (‘mysterious autumnal forces’) causing mild chaos. The music was vexed and insistent, and nimbly performed by the Fitkin Band. The two singers, Victoria Couper and Melanie Pappenheim were entirely sidelined as they walked and sang around the dancers, and as their words were entirely undecipherable they never gave the piece specific meaning or drama.
Neil Hannon’s musical career has been with the pop group The Divine Comedy, with songs of whimsical, bowler-hatted Englishness. His previous work betrays a certain eloquence that suggests an interest beyond pop culture, which could be why he was chosen for this project. The opera itself was an infuriatingly middle-of-the-road effort. Imagine a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta without any of the tunes or wit and you’d almost have an idea of the wares on offer. The libretto for Hannon’s opera Sevastopol was taken from Tolstoy, which, in hindsight, seemed to be more of an intellectual safety net than an artistic inspiration. Tolstoy goes to the front line of the Crimean War where he overhears gossip and observes horrors. Baritone Richard Burkhard played Tolstoy with complete commitment and sang with as much passion as the role could sustain. Hannon took time in the programme notes to explain that he doesn’t understand or have respect for art created since the 1970s, which may be a clue to his affection for heavy dollops of musical pastiche and cliché.
Emma Bailey’s designs were perfectly in keeping with the atmosphere of the two contrasting works, managing to conjure ethereal simplicity for Home and the grim war-torn squalor for Sevastopol.
Having a composer’s first attempt at opera staged at the Royal Opera House is a luxury that should perhaps be treated with more reverence. Fitkin’s work was accomplished and brave, but just happened not to be an opera. The glib line from Hannon “I find not thinking about things a great way of getting things done” was misfired false modesty. Perhaps actually thinking about things is a way of getting great things done.