ROH2 in the Linbury Studio, Royal Opera House

Operashots is a new initiative from Covent Garden’s ROH2 programme, in which composers from varying backgrounds are given a free hand to produce a short theatre work for the Linbury Studio. 

Whether it will “turn opera on its head”, as the publicity claims, is unlikely as enterprises like the Tete a Tete festival have been doing exactly the same for some years now (albeit with a fraction of the resources) and operatic handstands are not so uncommon.

This inaugural year of the project sees commissions from Orlando Gough, Nitin Sawhney and Jocelyn Pook on subjects as various as wish-fulfilment, Vedic mathematics and football.  All three pieces are stylishly presented, the Gough as a domestic setting looming out of black behind a neon frame, Sawhney’s on a bald, white set with glimmers of musicians through a gauze and Pook’s in a big black box, into which performers and furniture are thrown with abandon.

Gough’s a cappella work for one performer (A Ring A Lamp A Thing), to an elliptical text by playwright Caryl Churchill no less, and Sawhney’s Entanglement, an esoteric look at something to do with quantum physics and pregnancy tests are short on theatrical content, if pleasant enough in sound.

I never dig too deeply for logical meaning (an over-rated concept) in any theatrical presentation but you’d be hard put to relate Sawhney’s programme notes to what you’re seeing on the stage.  I was probably missing something but it seems he was trying to communicate some kind of concept.  If so, it whizzed over my head, as I indulged myself in the soothing effects of Bansuri flute and tabla.

Pook’s Ingerland was the closest to any kind of opera convention, a witty and physical, if over-long, drift through aspects of the phenomenon of football worship.  There was something resembling drama and song and it certainly entertained (the repeated lyric “the referee’s a wanker” a welcome addition to the world of opera).

Watching this kind of experimentation inevitably raises the question “what is an opera?” and it’s always a good question, if it’s best kept as a rhetorical one. Certainly, opera is an art-form that everyone seems to want to appropriate for themselves these days. 

Following the maxim “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, then it probably is a duck,” then something that doesn’t look like an opera, doesn’t move like an opera and doesn’t sound like an opera may not be one.  Perhaps, the fact that a major opera company puts it on in an opera house is enough to warrant the label, although that veers uncomfortably close to paternalism.

Either way, like the pioneering work that Tete a Tete continues to do, Operashots is another worthwhile contribution to the operatic mix and one awaits the announcement of next year’s composers with interest.