An operatic love story for our digital age
There was an air of palpable excitement at Glyndebourne-in-the-gloom (mist and fog obscuring much of the Sussex downs) as Orlando Gough’s first full-length opera received its first public performance last night. The lovely house, which comes into its own each summer, has used its dark months to prepare a spectacular community opera centred on an online gaming world introduced into a care home as a therapeutic tool.
I hate the term ‘community opera’. You can see people’s eyes glaze over. Glyndebourne uses the term to delineate much of the remarkable educationally focused work it has done over the past quarter of a century. But, honestly, Imago doesn’t fit into the ‘very worthy’ category. It is, truly, a community opera in that it includes 90 amateur performers, ranging in age from 15 to 73, taking part both on the Glyndebourne main stage and in the orchestra pit, where 25 exceptionally talented student instrumentalists join 19 professional musicians in the Aurora Orchestra under Nicholas Collon. But it is not ‘worthy’. It is complex. It is fun. It is lively. It is innovative. The libretto is a gem, the music derivative from many sources and from none, and the whole a glorious affirmation that opera is a vibrant art form in our digital generation.
The one full chorus number that brought the house down was the hilarious 'A capella Wedding', lovingly crafted by librettist Stephen Plaice to play to Gough’s strengths and love of unaccompanied choral singing. Preparing this showstopper – which deserves an independent life – must have been a joy! ‘Dinga donga dinga donga dinga donga ding, this is your a capella wedding,’ sing the riotously dressed wedding guests. Plaice has excelled himself, condensing a complete online wedding and reception into some six fun-filled minutes.
But there are serious themes and dilemmas underlying Imago. How do we feel about vicarious love between a dying 80-year-old woman and a teenage lad? Should we, as a society, applaud or fear the impact our online lives are having on ‘real life’? What are the parameters that parents should use when determining how to handle their children’s involvement in the online world? How do we teach our children to avoid the perils that seemingly lurk around every mouse-click? Inappropriate relationships and predatorial grooming have become part of our online landscape and Plaice and Gough have not sought to avoid some of the questions that are inevitably raised.
The amateurs, the ‘community’ element, had a field day, both in the first-rate orchestra, devoid of brass but with enhanced woodwind and percussion, and on stage. Director Susannah Waters and designers Es Devlin and Bronia Housman have created a succession of believable online environments – the teleport station, Mediterranean café, Last Chance Casino, pro-democracy political demo, pleasure garden, honeymoon beach, as well as the care home peopled by the older amateurs, in addition to Glyndebourne stalwart Jean Rigby, whose portrayal of the 80-year-old Elizabeth is a masterclass in itself. She is on stage for much of the evening, seated in her wheelchair, wearing the helmet which allows her to interact with her avatar – her imago, Lisette – even though much of the vocal burden is carried by Lisette. Joanna Songi made her mark at Glyndebourne as Flora in The Turn of the Screw, but she has a massive role here and her duet with Rigby, ‘Ice in the spring, he was barely eighteen,’ was meltingly beautiful.
The way Imago has been constructed for its large choruses of both young and old people will probably militate against its getting much exposure in the ‘real’ operatic world. But that would be a shame. It is too good a piece to be put to rest after a mere four performances at Glyndebourne this week.
At least you can catch it online on May 11 and 12, when Glyndebourne will stream the complete opera on its website as part of its celebration of European Opera Days 2013.
Antony Craig started going to Covent Garden in 1962 and visits and writes about opera around the world – he has probably been to more than 1000 performances at the Royal Opera House alone. He also sings in two choirs.