Sunday, 19 April 2015

Into The Little Hill, Shadwell Opera, Limehouse

I was so glad to have caught Shadwell Opera's final performance of George Benjamin's chamber opera Into The Little Hill. The opera is - as Shadwell Opera's director James Furness told us in an introduction - a re-working of the Pied Piper tale performed by two singers with a 14-piece chamber orchestra. Having the instrumentalists arranged around the circular stage area gave one the opportunity to really focus on the sounds: there's a lovely extremity of timbre with misty low woodwind (baritonal clarinet & flute) set against the pontilism of mandolin, banjo and cymbalon. So it was with the singers, Emily Vale (crisp, high soprano) & Jess Dandy whose svelte contralto characterised the smooth-talking of both the scheming Minister and his wife.

I was taken in by the storytelling of the piece, the stylised design and stage movement, and the above-average music-making quickly. It's a good piece, seductive and sorrowful, and bears a moral blade (particularly pertinent in this pre-election period). Finnegan Downie Dear conducted a measured performance with super dynamic contrast.

Much more interesting to me were the circumstances of the performance. The company had brought this production to the John Scurr Community Centre in Limehouse, one stop down the DLR from the company's namesake station, to bring it to 'those who wouldn't normally have access to opera performances'. The other  venues were St. Paul's, Bow and Southern Grove Community Centre.

Now, I can't say how many local people came to hear the performance, and I wouldn't presume to guess the background of the audience, numbering around a dozen. However, being in this space in a residential cul-de-sac of Tower Hamlets really focussed my attention as a member of the audience. Not the proximity of the performers, not the subject matter (a unconcealed investigation of anti-immigration) but simply having the vernacular and conventions of a theatrical opera performance delivered, unmediated, to a space to which one might assume such things are alien.

I was in the audience but concerned with whether the performance was catering for all the audience. Odd. In other words, I felt pressed to examine how different I might be from the people sitting around me. Then, as the performance progressed, the show itself pulled my attention to it, away from the present realism of of the room and into the momentum of the fable.

This is a testament to the conviction of the performers, of course. It's also the value of and reason for live performance. It's not necessary to have had identical experiences to those about you. Yet the transference-like process (to co-opt a psychiatric term) of being aware of your indiviual differences to becoming part of a communal audience is as valuable a part of the theatrical experience as anything delivered by the show itself. I went along to catch a show offered for specific audience based on a specific criteria. The quality of the show and its performance meant that it superceded this predicate and became the reason for anyone to see it. That's a powerful thing for those of us working in lyric theatre to recognise.

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