TARGET, THE ITCH AND ANOTHER LAMENT ARE THE WILD PROGENY OF CHAMBER MADE OPERA’S 2010 LIVING ROOM OPERA SERIES, AN INNOVATIVE APPROACH TO FUNDING NEW WORKS ENCOMPASSING PRIVATE PATRONAGE, GOVERNMENT SUBSIDY AND CROWDFUNDING. A HOST PROVIDES THEIR LIVING ROOM AS THE PERFORMANCE SPACE, WHILE BOOKING ONE OF THE LIMITED SEATS (IF YOU’RE LUCKY YOU’LL ACTUALLY GET THE SOFA) COMES WITH RECOGNITION AS A CO-COMMISSIONER, FOOD, WINE AND THE OPPORTUNITY TO DISCUSS THE WORK WITH THE COMPOSER AND FELLOW AUDIENCE-PATRONS.
While the Living Room Opera series has precedents in salon performance traditions, its particular combination of funding and social strategies gives hosts, audiences, composers and performers a unique sense of ownership, opening up the possibilities for original and inspired creations.
Luke Paulding’s Target re-imagines the Ancient Greek myth of Ganymede, the most beautiful of mortals abducted by Zeus to serve as cup bearer to the gods; Alex Garsden’s The Itch musically embellishes an article from The New Yorker in 2008 about a woman who awoke one morning with an chronic itch on her head (RT100, p40); and Another Lament (a collaboration between double bassist and singer Ida Duelund Hansen, from the mixed-ability performance ensemble Rawcus, and sound designer Jethro Woodward) explores the death of the English baroque composer Henry Purcell. The young composers’ musical styles are as varied as their subjects, from the bleeding edge of extended string techniques to jazz-inflected baroque arias.
“I did not especially set out to work with young composers,” claims Artistic Director David Young, “the works speak for themselves.” As many composers struggle to find funding once they grow out of the youth bracket of government grants, the Living Room Opera series provides a valuable lesson in alternative sources of funding for its participants.
Performed in “Melbourne’s living room,” La Mama, the work in progress Target showcases Paulding’s distinctive timbral vocabulary in exploration of the dynamics of sexual desire and fear in ancient and contemporary worlds. Through saccades between episodes of delicate wind, percussion and vocal extended techniques,
Target’s enchantingly transparent sonic palette evokes a world of short attention span pleasure as Zeus (baritone Matthew Thomas) towers over Ganymede (boy soprano Jordan Janssen) in the cramped La Mama theatre. Flute and tuba breath tones flicker at the periphery of hearing until the terrifying and terrified power of Zeus’ voice is brought down upon Ganymede at the moment of his abduction. Ganymede interrupts the peripheral hum not with screams but with silence, the boy’s twittering interrupted by the glottal stops of trauma.
The audience was intimately close to the ensemble in La Mama’s black box, ensuring that none of the subtlety of Paulding’s composition was lost. After the performance, the audience had the opportunity to ask questions of the composer and hear key sections of the opera again. As David Young explains, the Living Room Opera concept takes its cue from the 19th century tradition of salon performances, where virtuosi would bash out the latest works by Liszt and gentlemen would show off their fine baritone in an intimate, semi-private setting. Beyond a small-scale format for the development of new grand works, Young sees the salon format as serving a pedagogical purpose. Warning that “this is not just a nostalgic experiment,” Young wants audiences to “learn more by having a close experience and speaking with the artists after the show.”
The didactic ending to Target evoked not only salon performances but also Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances of 1918–21. Formed for the development of musical understanding, the well-rehearsed works were repeated as many as six times during a single program. Unlike at the strictly pedagogical performances of Schoenberg’s Society, there was no shortage of applause at the conclusion of Target, which is set to become a fully-fledged Living Room Opera later this year.
With Alex Garsden’s The Itch, the Living Room Opera series moved in to full swing. Fiona Sweet and Paul Newcombe’s open plan living space filled with interested patrons quaffing wine while the performers loitered outside a set of french doors. Although Garsden’s masterful representation of skin irritation on string instruments was hard on even the most seasoned ears and despite the occasional twitch, cough or scratch of discomfort, the audience sat in rapt attention to Garsden’s score and soprano Carolyn Connors’ pained vocalisations. This was not an audience looking for a pleasant night’s entertainment, but one intent on supporting new music.
Offering the perks of being recognised as co-commissioner of the work, speaking with composer and performers, and sharing the performance in an intimate setting with like-minded aficionados, events like The Itch resemble Kickstarter and Fundbreak crowdfunding campaigns, where fans sponsor small-scale cultural projects. They are rewarded, depending on the size of their donation, with things like back catalogue CDs and visits to the recording studio of the supported artist. (Since Kickstarter campaigns rarely gather donations from outside the campaigner’s circle of friends of friends, it might be more correct to say that crowdfunding campaigns resemble an intimate living room gathering of a network of interested persons more than the decentralised and anonymous peer group that the “crowdfunding” appellage suggests.)
Another Lament takes as its inspiration the death of English baroque composer Henry Purcell. So the colourful version of the story goes, Purcell succumbed to pneumonia after his wife locked him out in the snow when he returned from a long night of carousing at the local theatre. Hosts Deidre and Naham Warhaft’s hallway and twin living spaces, separated by screen doors, provide a double proscenium arch for Rawcus director Kate Sulan’s immaculately choreographed tableaux vivants. Sulan uses the house’s depth and wings to conceal the Rawcus ensemble and lighting by Richard Vabre, haunting the tripartite stage with apparitions so carefully placed as to seem to have always inhabited the space. Even in moments of frenzied activity, when plates are broken and Purcell begs at the front door, the audience seems to be haunting a haunting quite indifferent to their presence.
Sulan’s use of simple repetition and broken symmetries complements Duelund Hansen’s pared back interpretations of Purcell hits on voice and double bass. She utilises a vast stylistic spectrum from baroque to jazz harmonies and mid-20th century Central European atonality, to extended vocal and double bass techniques. Her reinterpretations of Purcell demonstrate an expressive continuum in harmonic and
timbral composition from unnerving baroque contrapuntal dissonance to the sickly crackle of cotton thread over a double bass string.
Woodward completes the ethereal habitation, manipulating sound throughout the three rooms. By looping and amplifying Hansen, actors’ voices, breaking tea cups and spinning plates, Woodward lends the house layers of resonating history as the performer’s voice is multiplied in a carefully controlled musical polyphony.
As representative of the Living Room Opera project, Another Lament stands as a celebration of contemporary chamber music and a rebirth of baroque arts business practice. The Living Room Opera series reflects the combination of public funding, private patronage and enterprise that Purcell himself enjoyed in Restoration England (while holding a post at Westminster Abbey), fulfilling commissions from royalty and composing music for the theatre. Though Chamber Made Opera’s workings may seem baroque (both historically and as in “irregular”) in an arts industry fixated on government subsidy, they are looking backwards to move forward, supporting a battery of composers by bringing chamber opera home.