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While Grimeborn may take its name from the more established opera festival at Glyndebourne, it is unlikely that it shares many of its visitors. With none of the pomp of is south coast namesake, this short programme of events in East London’s Arcola Theatre has taken a more experimental, tongue-in-cheek approach, bringing opera to the streets.
The Arcola may have recently completed a renovation but the space remains obstinately bare and simple. The main stage is not much of a stage at all – more a small floor space surrounded on three sides by raised seating, supported by scaffolding poles. A Dalstonesque theatron, the exposed brick and scaffold creates a space designed for chamber productions and up-close theatre as opposed to symphonic compositions viewed from the gods.
For the audience this means that the performers’ every action is up close and personal. The fourth wall is largely forgotten; at times, the performers enter the stage via the same door that the audience used to take their seats. Encompassing a range of performances including experimental vocal compositions, multimedia drama and low-key productions of established operas, the tone is intimate rather than bombastic.
The performances on the bill for this year’s festival take advantage of this, playing up the audience connection and intimacy of the space when virtuosity or spectacle are not attainable. The result is a charming and exploratory programme of events showcasing an art that might commonly be dismissed as the preserve of the moneyed and privileged.
Near the start of this year’s festival, Exquisite Corpses (August 1) took in pieces from six living composers – Mark Applebaum, Anthony Braxton, George Chambers, Pauline Oliveros, Michael Parsons, and Lauren Redhead – to explore graphic and open forms of notation, relying exclusively on the human body for instrumentation.
The piece was presented by the Vocal Constructivists, who take their name from the Soviet design movement famed for its modernist experimentation and geometric abstract forms. In a similar fashion, the company’s approach to sound is more about pulling apart the listeners’ preconceived ideas than constructing a coherent narrative. Formed in 1993, the group has developed a decidedly distinctive style: while at times dissonant tones and lack of melody may distance the audience, the performance is never less than lively.
Each piece is more than a mere recital; it encompasses idiosyncratic notation, dance, video projection and a bewildering collection of sounds. The group conjures a constantly moving floor of noises – lip pops, tongue clicks, finger snaps, flutter lips, white noise, rapidly changing vowels, singing through clenched teeth, percussive envelopes, humming and ring-modulation – all bubble from the mouths of the performers as they weave amongst each other.
The repertoire of this fifteen-strong group is linked primarily by a refusal to enact traditional musical norms. In the rare occasions where a sustained rhythm or melody threatens to appear, the group subvert expectations to keep the listener guessing. Where words appear they are fractured, turned into their component syllables and refracted through the vocal chords of the performers. A line in the piece Nevrazumitelny by Michael Parsons reads ‘working reworking the rock’, and there is a sense that the various clicks and percussive sounds are the outward signs of the performers working and reworking their own aural bedrock.
From the very start the notation is centre stage: geometrical and representational shapes created specifically for some of the group’s pieces are projected as they vocalize, a kind of musical Malevich. To the outsider these shapes, resembling obtuse graffiti tags, at first appear to have no meaning – but as the performance progresses there is an evident, if nebulous, connection with the sounds that are being produced.
For those seeking more melodious recitation, Mozart’s The Magic Flute (August 7-10) presented a well-travelled option. Since its premiere in 1791, it has consistently been amongst the most frequently performed operas worldwide. This version, transferred to London after a sell-out run at the Ryedale Opera Festival, wisely chooses not to outperform it antecedents but instead presents a stripped-down, rough-and-ready version.
Working from an English translation of Schikaneder’s original German libretto, the aim of the production is clearly accessibility and in this the performance plays to the strengths of the space. The story – a light frothy fairytale following the tribulations of young prince Tamino as he uses his magic flute to pursue his love Pamina – remains as ever subsidiary to the music.
Relying on the humour of the piece and the directness of the story, the performances do not bear close scrutiny – but neither do they ask for it. With a minimal set and sparse orchestra, the cast are engaging if not virtuoso and the close proximity to the audience throughout creates a warmth that is harder to conjure on more palatial stages. Just as opera presents a marriage of music and drama, the connection with the audience remains the key to these performances and to the continued success of Grimeborn.
The Grimeborn Festival continues at the Arcola Theatre until August 31. See the theatre website for more information.