Revolutions: A magical evening of six new operas by young composers at the Royal College of Music

Often a reviewer’s evening spent at the opera has little to do with the future of the art – arguably, we might sometimes be thinking it is the opposite. The works themselves are often centuries old; the composers so well-known they are woven into the fabric of the history of the genre itself. It’s a comfortable journey back to the past – only perhaps disturbed by the revolutionary or radical impact of the production.  

There was a future on offer for at least one evening in London and it was hugely impressive. The six operas given by young composers studying at the Royal College of Music all offered varying visions of a future of opera, hooked to a theme of ‘Revolutions’ – although that sometimes felt a little tenuous and was certainly used in the most ambiguous of ways. Arguably what we got was something quite universal – themes of inclusion and exclusion; the power of humanity and inhumanity; pathos and humour. Revolution was both historical and something imagined in the future – but it was also metaphysical. These operas could be very real or they could sometimes be surreal – and this was often sublimely helped by the music itself. What made it more remarkable was the extraordinary way each was given its own mini production by Tête à Tête, one of the most exploratory and adventurous of opera companies. Compact these works might have been, but they were often quite far-reaching in their messaging and impact.

Fanny and Stella’s Last Day Out by Jasper Dommett (Ted Day, Eyra Norman)

The first opera, Ed Driver’s Airtime (to a libretto by Samir Chadha) did rather assume one thing – that you knew of the Paris pneumatic clock network. Kept running by compressed air, the clocks were largely accurate; in this opera we followed the life of Philippe N du Lum whose consistent respiration regulates the network. Strapped to a breathing machine, this is temporarily interrupted by his wife (tired of this predictability in her life) leaving him causing Philippe to hyperventilate which disturbs the regularity of the clocks across Paris. All of this is jointly played out over a Parisian radio station run by Philippe’s brother, Pierre, who has little time to find a replacement to conduct an orchestra. Pierre straps himself into the breathing machine and with his impeccable sense of time Philippe conducts the orchestra instead.

Tête à Tête’s staging helps the audience understand this convoluted plot (all set within something like twenty minutes) with some skill. The actual clocks on stage are mysteriously telling us no time at all – everything is determined by the irregularity (or regularity) of the revolutions of the rotating Paris dial of day and night spinning uncontrollably faster or slower with Philippe’s erratic breathing. Driver’s score is very much worked towards the concept of both time and function – it thrives on the idea of what a clock does, and how the body breathes and the synchronicity of the two is often achieved with a skilful precision. Even though the orchestra used here is a relatively small one (as it is for all of the operas) the use of percussion, woodwind and the piano was imaginative. James Emerson’s Philippe was the pick of the singers here. Design was superbly done – actually rather striking. The image of an artist with a swinging watch from her neck was one thing; the fact she had her head buried beneath a cage was quite another.

The Anthem by Jasper Eaglesfield

Jasmine Morris’s opera Church on the Blood was a considerably sparser work but it also highlighted a number of contrasting themes (and some constraints) with the six operas we heard. One of two operas which looked to Russia for its inspiration, these were also two of the (three) operas which did not use a librettist – something which I did not think worked completely in their favour: structure could be a problem, as could tightness of plot. Church on the Blood relies partly on narration – these are diary entries from Tsar Nicholas II – and over the span of the opera (broken into three short scenes) it seemed too fragmented. If in part it recalls Janáček’s The Diary of One Who Disappeared – at least in some of the kinetic, raw power that Morris gets from her use of voice and music – what was sometimes missing here was a depth in the characterisation. This was a little too static, just a tad lacking in impact.

On the other hand, what Jasmine Morris does with the orchestra is often quite remarkable. It entirely matched the darkness and bleakness of the subject, the libretto and the staging; it was a case of sparseness meeting the mirror of itself. Jasmine Morris was one composer to really use the orchestra with a creative edge, often pushing boundaries with some of the instruments: a prepared piano (timpani sticks, hand palms against strings, the darkness of dull hammers from punched piano keys) was striking; the use of a bass drum and a snare drum was a fascinating contrast. If the orchestration felt almost minimalist, the use of the voice could sometimes (especially through the Tsarina Alexandra herself) sound almost monophonic and liturgical hinting at a kind of Gregorian Orthodoxy. This partly offset some of the heavy moments that the diary extracts brought to the flow of the work.

Tête à Tête’s staging was clear enough. Actual photos from the room itself gave a sense of claustrophobia; and the cellar where the Romanov’s were shot – with just two chairs in front of the photograph of walls with bullet holes – displayed the execution. The horror of these scenes is still palpable today but there is perhaps less a sense of waning hope and more of implicitly impending hopelessness in the overall shape of this opera. Charlie Clapperton’s Alexandra Feodorovna was often spellbinding, and sensuously warm of tone, and yet this was also a performance that was rooted in the deepest despair too.

A complete contrast came with Jasper Dommett’s Fanny and Stella’s Last Day Out. This opera, too, looked to history for its inspiration – the Victorian female impersonators Fanny and Stella who scandalised London with their flamboyance and salon performances until they were eventually arrested at the Strand Theatre in April 1870 and sent to trial at Bow Street on charges of buggery and female impersonation.

The Drifterman by Connie Harris (Zhen Liu, May Abercrombie)

Dommett’s opera packed a great deal into its short time span and largely succeeded because of a masterly libretto by Jessica Walker that simply didn’t stray too far beyond the confines of what it was trying to achieve. Set within a single day, Fanny and Stella buy stockings, sing a parlour song, go to the theatre and then get hauled before Bow Street – and this all happens to the most riotous, playful and rollicking score that risked much and succeeded entirely in making it work. I wondered at the time whether Dommett’s focus on the piano would be a contestable issue with this opera, but their uses it so skilfully and with such panache it was a joy from first note to last.

There is, of course, a tragic irony to Dommett’s opera and one which sits uncomfortably with the idea of revolution – and that is that in the age of Victorian Britain decadence was so at odds with its social conservatism that values of freedom and individuality came into conflict at great personal cost (the persecution and prosecution of Oscar Wilde was yet to come, of course). Rooted in the glamour of the Burlington Arcade is decline and fall.

Tête à Tête’s staging was superb. A kind of candy-floss coloured backdrop for the arcade itself, and a rather hellish looking Newgate Prison for the “rectum examination” – this was the very definition of state buggery. Costumes were superb – Ted Day was magnificent as Fanny, a vivid picture of the character itself with a quite thrilling tenor voice to boot, although I wondered if Dommett had written the part of Stella for soprano or if it was just a casting choice. Fanny and Stella’s Last Day Out was one of the most clearly joined-up of the operas – it worked because it seemed absolutely complete from start to finish. In many ways, this was high class opera with both pathos and humour and a score that matched it every bit of the way.

Although all art is distinctly personal Connie Harris’s The Drifterman was rooted in a particularly private inspiration – and presumably this is why she tackled her own libretto. If the subject itself has its birth in the age of the Industrial Revolution the setting of the opera (Norfolk, in the 1970s) places the drifterman in a time when he is all but a remnant of the past and forgotten. Tête à Tête’s staging was entirely convincing at revealing this. A single trawler is all we really see on stage set within an absolutely vast canvas that swoops down and across the entire stage evoking the turbulence and desolation of the sea. The use of light beneath (and shone onto this) achieved some quite startling effects of oceanic turbulence. What I did find difficult to manage – and it was a flaw in this opera alone – was the singular use of light shone so brightly into the arena; I felt I was trapped in the path of a lighthouse or searchlight.

The Drifterman is necessarily static – even slow. It largely relies on two singers, Danny Dry (sung by Zhen Liu) and Billy (May Abercrombie). There are the Lost Girls – rather like the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey – and this is also one of two operas that uses a chorus. Although this opera had no ancestral link to Benjamin Britten’s two seafaring operas it was sometimes not difficult to think it did have some link: there were some seeds of the Peter Grimes Interludes that sprouted here and there and the underlying terror to this opera wasn’t exactly subtle. This trawler may be adrift off the coast of Norfolk but it was not far from Suffolk either. This was probably the most challenging opera for the two singers simply because they were so exposed both dramatically and vocally. If sometimes Zhen Liu was a little opaque there was also little doubt he was powerful in what he sang and had the depth of emotional integrity to do justice to Harris’s music. The Drifterman succeeded to project atmosphere and expression with equal balance, even if it laboured a little to get there.

I (Romance) by the Ukrainian composer Alisa Zaika is based on Mykola Khvylovy’s novella set in 1920s Ukraine, a period then under Bolshevik rule. A book about conscience – ‘I’ the main character of the work struggles between his own human instincts and those of his work, the inflicting of torture or death on others – this opera probably struggled the most to confine itself to its own narrative. If Jasmine Morris’s Church on the Blood had been partly about one kind of persecution then Alisa Zaika’s was about another that had blossomed from it: The persecution of theosophists, of the mothers of children, of nuns; from the persecution of people emerges the persecution of ideas and religion.

Zaikia’s opera is in part a narrative – but that historical interface is also a contemporary vision. If Morris’s score had had textures that predisposed towards the monophonic and darker tones, Zaika hinted at ones that probed much deeper; the piano, for example, was weightier, almost mighty in its shifts of colour. Strings were more prominent – especially the use of the cello.

The question Zaika’s ‘I’ asks is whether his choice of going to the Front (and probably his own certain death) is an easier one than it is for a man to sign warrants and send others to their death? The theme of revolution marked in this particular opera stands apart from the others in one important sense: it is simply not one set in history. It is as relevant today as it was in the 1920s. This perhaps made I (Romance) the bleakest of all the operas and also the one that most felt unstable within its miniature framework. But it felt entirely contemporary and the truths it made us confront were uncomfortable.

Tête à Tête’s stage designs never let us forget where we are. A giant hammer and sickle hangs centre stage (and clever lighting makes a shadow of it on the stage, too) where convicts –anonymously known as ‘X’ or ‘Y’ – are executed. With the committee requesting wine before they can decide who to sentence to death the parallels with wartime massacres in Ukraine and elsewhere give the atrocities an ambiguity: is it for courage to commit murder or as an anaesthetic to absolve oneself of the guilt of committing them?

The final opera – Jasper Eaglesfield’s The Anthem – is one of those once seen never quite forgotten works. It hardly seems surprising that Mark-Anthony Turnage should be one of his teachers because The Anthem is radical and rather media heavy (and not dissimilar to Greek in its orchestration, if in other ways too). The libretto (his first, apparently), by Harry Davies, is masterly – extremely tight, and dripping in satire.

We got to see rather more of the opera than scheduled due to a set malfunction on the first night of these performances – although when we were told this it rather felt as if this was part of the opera (which slightly reminded me of seeing Sarah Kane’s Cleansed when an alarm clock went off in the stalls – only to discover it wasn’t part of the production at all but an incorrectly programmed clock in a briefcase). But, after the opera began again it flowed with astounding speed.

To get to the meaning of the title of this opera you have to go through a great deal of narrative for The Anthem itself appears at the very end. The theme of ‘revolution’ in this opera is absolutely alive; in fact, it’s such a contemporary one, if I had written this review last week US politics would have looked slightly different than it does today (now Presidents have the absolute power of kings) and if I were to have written this review on Friday morning of this week (rather than a few days ago) UK electoral politics may actually look something close to as its imagined in this opera: an “historic win” – a “wipeout”. Some things in The Anthem cut uncomfortably close to home, however. The vote to abolish the monarchy (ironically called for by a Tory prime minister – Jessica Wright – who wants to dismantle the class system) is a narrow one – by 51% to 49%; not exactly unlike Brexit.

But revolution rarely works the way it should. A vengeful King dissolves parliament and a Labour prime minister, Xander Sterne – uncannily Blairite, but in Hunter Wellingtons and green country jacket – emerges through a landslide election. A monarchy that was never entirely absolute in the first place is now seen to be replaced with what is in effect an absolute one-party (anti)-democratic government – where corruption and unaccountability are now the norm. The former Master of the King’s Music is asked to compose a new National Anthem but at first refuses and only relents after his wife, a journalist Imogen Lear, who has been investigating the totalitarianism of the new government, is threatened. As democracy crumbles the couple find themselves enemies of the state – and The Anthem plays out to its new rousing finale.

Although all of the six operas deal in one way or another with the existential theme of revolution The Anthem is the only one to approach it on an epic scale. It is outsized in its cast of singers; it is outsized by the scope and breadth of its subject. Jasper Eaglesfield’s score – although he uses an orchestra that is by and large no bigger than that used by any other of the composers – succeeds in matching the scale of the themes he wants by writing music that is imposing and sweeping in its impact; but it is also exciting as well. This is music that has pace and drama, that mirrors the events it in its narrative. Of all the operas this one most skilfully uses all of the orchestra not just in the most thematic way, but in the most operatic way: here the choral conclusion feels absolutely right, even if it is actually full of menace.

As with most of the operas Tête à Tête’s stage design followed its split-level layout but if this had felt workable before it felt crowded in The Anthem because of what was happening: On the other hand, a chaotic staging more than justified a democracy in crisis; television screens that didn’t synchronise ran in parallel to a society that was in disarray and disorder among the many galvanised the few to supress the silent majority. There were clever little touches that placed us in a modern reality: The busker (Charlie Clapperton) playing a violin against a backdrop of the tunnel that runs towards South Kensington Tube Station; the BBC TV studio with shots of 10 Downing St and Buckingham Palace and a non-fictional Nicholas Witchell.

The singing was first rate in what is an ensemble opera – notably from Benedict Munden as Xander Sterne (oleaginous joy oozing from this role that could easily be parody if missing the darkness that’s also there), and from Richard Decker and Anastasia Koorn as the composer and journalist who stand against Xander’s political tyranny. I thought The Anthem something of a masterpiece of theatre and opera; only later did I think it probably might be a rather dangerous work for at least some to ever see; except politicians studiously avoid opera these days.

Six operas. Six different takes on the idea of ‘Revolution’. One conclusion I came to after this quite extraordinary evening was that a more sardonic take on the idea of this theme worked marginally better than a more serious one. In the latter case, history may often seem to come from a static event (and some of these operas did treat it like that) but the lesson of history is that it is often one that repeats itself. The clearest example of this was Alisa Zaika’s I (Romance); it is a work of considerable power and meaning but it also stands alone among these six works as being the only one that resolved to be nothing more nor less than an opera that takes us to another time or place beyond our comfort zone. History in Zaika’s opera isn’t so much repeated but inescapable; Khvylovy eventually faced his own atrocities with suicide. I (Romance) is an astounding piece of writing; I just wished to hear this particular opera in isolation perhaps.

It may have been a coincidence or not that the librettos for the wittiest and the most satirical operas were not written by the composers themselves; these operas largely worked better because they rarely took themselves too seriously – or, if they did their ‘revolutions’ were laced with the kind of humour that threw cynicism to the side. Jasper Dommett’s characters of Fanny and Stella were real enough – but they were mordacious and tart, and in performances as stellar as the two we got from the Ted Day (Fanny) and Eyra Norman (Stella) this opera was raised to a class act. The political mischief of The Anthem, and the way in which it turns conventional political ideas on their head – so we now have the egalitarian right versus the authoritarian left – was clever. This power trip opera was great fun – and horrifically prescient.

I can’t quite imagine the preparation the orchestra of the Royal College of Music underwent to get through this evening. It would be an understatement to say the playing was anything less than stunning. From where I was sat, it was often galvanising to watch them play (as in Church on the Blood); Michael Rosewell’s conducting of these six scores was masterly and I do not think any of these composers could have wished for better first performances of their operas. With so many of the singers also taking on multiple parts across the operas, too, the distinction of the performances was exceptional.

This particular evening I think proved two things. The Royal College of Music is a global cauldron of creativity that has few, if any, equals in the world today. And, as these six operas showed the future of opera is about both the great music schools that thrive to allow young composers to write the works, and companies like Tête à Tête which have the imagination and willingness to empower these composers with opera’s future.

Marc Bridle

Revolutions: six short new operas by Royal College of Music composers

Ed Driver to a libretto by Samir Chadha

Philippe – James Emerson; Pierre – Peng Titan; Anne – Alexandra Francis; Marie – Lily Mo Browne; Baker – Charlie Clapperton; Tourist – Gabriel Tufail Smith; Artist – Alexandre Dunaeva; Watch Salesman – Richard Decker

Church on the Blood
Jasmine Morris – composer and librettist

Anastasia Romanov – Maryam Wocial; Marie Romanov – Laura Aherne; Alexandre Feodorovna; Nikolas Alexandrovich – Richard Decker; Grigory Nikulin – Joel Robson; Yakov Yurovsky – Gabriel Tufail Smith

Fanny and Stella’s Day Out
Jasper Dommett to a libretto by Jessica Walker

Fanny – Ted Day; Stella – Eyra Norman; Young Man – Simon Mascarenhas-Carter; Beadle/Police Officer/Doctor – James Emerson; Stella’s Mum – Anastasia Koorn; Low Voice Chorus – Benedict Munden, David Afzelius, Joel Robson, Gabriel Tufail Smith

I (Romance)
Alisa Zaika – composer and librettist

I – Oliver Bowes; Andruiusha – Simon Mascarenhas-Carter; Dr Tagabath – David Afzelius; The Degenerate – Gabriel Tufail Smith; Mother – Amber Reeves; Convict X – Adam Clayton; Convict Y – Anastasia Koorn; Guards 1 and 2 – Ted Day, Joel Robson; Nuns – Antoinette Pompe van Meerdervort, Maryam Wocial, Alexandra Francis

The Drifterman
Connie Harris – composer and librettist

Danny Dry – Zhen Liu; Billy – May Abercrombie; The Lost Girls – Laura Aherne, Alexandra Dunaeva, Alexandra Francis, Amber Reeves; Chorus – Maryam Wocial (sop), Lily Mo Browne (mezzo), Peng Tian (tenor), Joel Robson and Gabriel Tufail Smith (baritones)

The Anthem
Jasper Eaglesfield to a libretto by Harry Davies

News Reader – Joel Robson; Imogen Lear – Anastasia Koorn; Nicholas Lear – Richard Decker; Xander Sterne – Benedict Munden; Runner/Journalist 2/Old Lady – Antoinette Pompe van Meerdervort; Jessica Wright/Librarian – Eyra Norman; Jonty Peach/Journalist 3/Student – Adam Clayton; Journalist 1/Builder – David Afzelius; Rosamund Sterne – May Abercrombie; 3 Unnamed members of the public – Zhen Liu, Ted Day, Laura Aherne; Busker – Charlie Clapperton; TV studio staff – Lily Mo Browne, Amber Reeves, Alexandra Francis; Nicholas Witchell – Simon Carter; Security Guards – Olly Bowes, James Emerson

Royal College of Music Orchestra: Violin I – Bronte Vlashi; Violin II – Homan Woo; Viola – Katharine Wing, Manuel Camara; Cello – Meg Allen, Catherine Cotter; Double Bass – Mafalda Ribeiro; Flute/Piccolo – Leila Hooton; Oboe/Cor anglais – Wai Sum Leung; Clarinet/Bass Clarinet – Ed Pelham; Bassoon – Aidan Campbell; Saxophone – Rosemary Ball; Percussion – Milligan Coles Power, Charlie Payne; Harp – Catherine Reid

Director – Bill Bankes-Jones; Designer – Sarah Jane Booth; Lighting Designer – Colin Eversdijk; Orchestra of the Royal College of Music; Conductor – Michael Rosewell

Royal College of Music, London, 24 June 2024

Top Image: Church on the Blood by Jasmine Morris