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Unborn in America (The Vaults)

A new cabaret opera by Luke Styles and Peter Cant falls well short of expectations

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

It didn't help that a blockage in the bowels of The Vaults delayed the opening till a previous show had evacuated. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is as close to scatology as I'm prepared to go – except to whisper that Unborn in America is an opera about foetal matter and it's, well, not very good.

Jessica Walker in Unborn in America (Ensemble Amorpha/OperaUpClose)
© Christopher Tribble

The best I can say for it is that composer Luke Styles and librettist/director Peter Cant were brave to attempt a surreal operatic satire. If they had chosen less predictable targets than the hackneyed terrain of trailer trash and Tea Party US reactionaries, and if they had engaged a dramaturgical adviser to help them knock it in to some kind of coherent theatrical shape, bits of it might have worked.

The picaresque adventures of a foetus at large in redneck America is moderately promising: potential threats to such an ultra-vulnerable being could fire most imaginations. Besides, from Dadaism to the flying embryos of DM Thomas, art has a fine record of breaking through normal barriers of perception. Great creators, though, have two crucial assets: the quality of their work and the panache with which they deliver it.

Unborn in America, produced by Styles's own Ensemble Amorpha in association with OperaUpClose, is an unstageworthy mess. It sidles up to Anna Nicole with some timid attempts at vulgarity (the Statue of Liberty holds a burger and fries instead of a torch) and a few sweary bits, but it's not in the same league. There are also plenty of puns about the reproductive process: a bar that's called The Petri Dish is a womb from womb (although not, thankfully, with a view), and someone wishes the foetus a happy ever afterbirth. If that kind of thing tickles your funny bone you'll be enthralled.

The composer's idiom for what he calls a cabaret opera frequently favours bluesy pastiche, and he accompanies his game quartet of singers (Jessica Walker, Andrew Dickinson, Lucy Stevens and Robert Gildon, all of whose reputations survive intact) with a light orchestration that's reminiscent of Stravinsky's A Soldier's Tale. It's attractive without being cutting-edge, but of itself it's not enough.

This is the second opera by Luke Styles that I've attended, and neither of them points to a natural man of the theatre. Yet he's a young composer of considerable promise, as his impressive choral work Vanity demonstrated a couple of years back, so I hope he'll devote himself to concert music now, at least for a while.

Exiting through the graffiti tunnel outside The Vaults, I noticed an opus tagged ‘Burning Styles'. That seems harsh. Personally I'd stop at a mild roasting. Here you go.