Following the enormous success of ‘Marilyn Forever’, their inaugural production last Trinity, The Oxford Contemporary Opera Society, led by Zerlina Vulliamy, served up a transportive evening of three short operas, all written by Oxford undergraduates: Hani Elias’ ‘The Outsider’, Zerlina Vulliamy’s ‘Susanna’, and Israel Lai’s ‘BOU6’, held in the JDP at St Hilda’s. The three pieces, all providing a unique tone and atmosphere, proved to be a wonderful synthesis of what contemporary opera has to offer. Before the pieces began, we were offered an engaging exhibition in the foyer, detailing the three writers’ inspirations and thought processes behind their writing, as well as a brief description of ‘Marilyn Forever’.
The first piece of the evening, Hani Elias’ ‘The Outsider’, inspired by Camus’ L’Étranger, follows the trial for murder of Moselle de Beauvoir (Anna Townsend), to whose defence come her lover Marie Sartre (Lorelei Piper) and her fierce friend Sandrine Boucher (Paradis Farahati), facing off against the ghastly authoritarian Judge (Chris O’Leary), the one male figure of the piece, armed with the Donald Trump quotes — and, impressively, the baton. Hani’s packed ensemble (drums, keyboard, violin, cello, bass guitar, bass clarinet, trombone, and flute) provided an apt sonic personification for the bustle of the courtroom and the “journalists with your pens poised”. The disjointed sound every so often jerks into a simple beat, offering a wide array of texture. Ghostly disembodied vocals accompany de Beauvoir (Townsend) when she speaks on the minimalist stage, bathed in red light, deliciously sinister. The writing for The Judge, while affording the Trump analogy, felt a little too simplistic. By contrast, the interruptions of Boucher (Farahati) and Sartre (Piper), concealed in the audience, cause the piece to lurch into life, showing that Elias’ writing is focused and energetic.
To pair with the vibrancy of Elias’ piece, we are given Vulliamy’s ‘Susanna’, a retelling of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, which Vulliamy cites as one of the classic operas that sparked her love for the art form, and inspired her to contribute to the project of giving a modern spin to opera.. Vulliamy’s arrangement of vibraphone, trumpet, two violins, viola, cello, and piano on stage give a soothing prelude with which to ease the audience into our setting: an office space, late at night, with no one around. In comes Susanna (Tamsin Sandford-Smith), in monochrome office attire, tight black skirt, texting away, infatuated with emailing “important people”. Susanna is a total workaholic, and proud — she is “the last one left”, everyone has gone home. We are given signs across the piece of a thoughtful composer with a sense of humour: the vibraphone imitates the noise Susanna’s phone makes when she receives a text; with the introduction of her office romance, Figaro (Charlie Baigent), we are given musical gags on “sending nudes”, and “I know we never said that this was exclusive…”. The comedy was deservedly very well-received by the audience; but it eventually gives way, after the introduction of the male gaze in the bizarre and scary form of a ‘higher power’ harassing Susanna via text. We are then given a beautiful and sensitive portrayal of Susanna struggling through feelings of shame and a lack of autonomy, moving to a bold defiance, signified by the blare of the trumpet. ‘Susanna’ offered at once raunchy comedy, lyricism, and a snappy formation of feminist resolve.
The final piece, Israel Lai’s ‘BOU6’, a sweeping avant-garde portrayal of the Hong Kong protests, was the longest by far — and needed to be so to sink its claws at least some way into what is an extremely sensitive political issue. It is hard to describe Lai’s score, with vibraphone, two violins, viola, cello, double bass, flute, cor anglais, horn, and timpani, triangle and piano on stage: cacophonous, exploratory, unforgivingly complex. The staging was also the most detailed: sofa, newspaper-laden board, coffin, and office desk, with symbolic yellow raincoats slowly cluttering the space. Instantly we are put on edge by the nervous strings at the start of the piece: something is going to erupt. Our cast of four all portray different ‘spirits’, personifying the players of the protests: Tyranny (Zhao Ng), the Departed (Anna Townsend), Riot (Maxime Cugnon de Sévricourt), and Condemner (Oliver Black). Israel’s libretto is endlessly quotable (“Ignorance is not bliss: it is a choice”; “Silence looks good on you. Keep it”; “What will it take for this madness to stop spinning?”…) There was an extreme level of vocal talent on display — especially from Tyranny (Ng), occasionally at the cost of comprehension. Perhaps this was the point: piercing and precise noise from the part of the oppressors as their most potent weapon in stifling the cause of the protestors. It was admirable for Israel to give exposure to both ‘sides’ of the protest, even if the tyrant is still shown to be blatantly evil (talk of crushing and domination immediately precedes a toast for “Peace”). Some staging choices were questionable — mainly the excessive use of blackouts. But the technical issues may be cast to one side. The defiant poetry of the libretto, in the mouth of Riot (Cugnon de Sévricourt), came across beautifully: “There is no riot, only tyranny”, the slogan of a banner erected in the Legislative Council of Hong Kong earlier this year, is afforded a satisfying potency in this piece. The final act of the piece teetered towards being disengaging; in sum, however, ‘BOU6’ was a showcase of serious talent from a challenging score, with an urgent, unsettling dynamism throughout.
The Oxford Contemporary Opera society, in their second venture, have succeeded greatly in providing a varied evening of thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking pieces.