Festival Diary #7
Chamber Made Opera's innovative series of Living Room Operas - small-scale opera performances commissioned as site-specific works and performed in private houses - has produced some of the more interesting work I've seen over the past few years. Works such as Daniel Schlusser's Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Any More and Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's beautifully judged Dwelling Structure opened out and questioned domestic space in fascinating and sometimes disturbing ways; Another Lament, a collaboration with Rawcus, successfully made the difficult transition from domestic space to theatre when it transferred to the Malthouse earlier this year.
|The Minotaur Trilogy: Chamber Made Opera|
But relocating a site-specific performance is a tricky and delicate business which materially changes the nature of the work. The Minotaur Trilogy, which premiered as a tripartite work as part of the Melbourne Festival, demonstrates how problematic this can be. I saw the first part of David Young and Margaret Cameron's trilogy, Island, back in 2011, in the living room of a St Kilda Road apartment. Parts two and three, The Labyrinth and The Boats, are extensions of the original idea, here shown together for the first time.
The Minotaur Trilogy is in three parts of 49 minutes each, punctuated by 20 minute intervals, to make a work that lasts for three hours altogether. This makes it, among other things, a durational work: the audience is asked to spend time with the six performers, and further, to be aware of that time. Durational theatre can be deeply rewarding, but in this case for me it simply became an exercise in impatience. Repetition that plays off variations on minimal themes can pay off in two ways: it can deepen and enrich - perhaps the classic example of this is Bach's Goldberg Variations - or it can deaden and impoverish. Here, sadly, I just felt deadened.
The Melbourne Recital Centre's Salon, an intimate, wood-panelled performance space with near-perfect acoustics, is a very different proposition to a living room. It's a much larger space, for a start, and it mercilessly exposes everything: music, performance, design, choreography. In a living room, with the performers less than three feet away, the domestic context gave Part 1, Island, a playful, improvised quality that infused the performances with a certain humility: the found nature of the props and costumes - hats made from pencil cases and handbags, worn bits of driftwood - was foregrounded, and the sense of discovering ritual and myth within the ordinary and everyday was palpable. Performed in the round, with a new distance not only between the performers but between the performers and the audience, these qualities melted away, leaving in their wake an uncomfortable sense of archness.
Part 2, The Labyrinth, is mainly performed in darkness. The audience re-enters to find the chairs rearranged into a maze: you more or less find a seat by feel. All the chairs face forward to a stage area, where, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see performers and musicians moving. Sometimes a little flare of light emerges from a tealight candle, but mostly they are shadows in shadow. The score here again is minimal: percussion and voice that rise out of silence heralding a tableau that is constructed before a screen on a small platform, and briefly illuminated, as if with a camera flash.
Time is literally marked off by a digital timer at the back of the space: each tableau occurs after a period that is counted down, 3 minutes and thirty seconds, 10 seconds, four and a half minutes, two and a half minutes. I couldn't discern a pattern in the time modules, although there may have been one: it might equally have been randomly generated. The heraldic images that flash so fleetingly before you are often beautiful and mysterious: a woman in a shift whose head is a flower, a man with the head of a monster.
Part 3, The Boats, is performed in traverse; the six performers are all standing on wooden blocks, aside from the singer, the beautifully-voiced Deborah Kayser, who stands on a low platform at one end of the space. The performers, aside from Kayser, all have shoes on their heads, with white feathers sticking out of them, images of boats and sails. Again the score depends on repetition: every now and then the performers step off the blocks, with the slow, formal movements that characterise this show, and turn to face the other way. In one felicitious moment, the score is repeated when they all open musical cards.
There are several interesting ideas at work in The Minotaur Trilogy, but I was struck by their parsimony: it doesn't give much to its audience. This is a work turned relentlessly inward on the subjectivities of the performers: the audience is expected to provide the work of meaning, picking up on the hints given by props or gestures. You can certainly weave images together, picking up the symbolism of legend of the Minotaur: the cursed sexual passion for a bull, the half-man half beast, the abandoned woman, the treacherous Theseus. I am not usually averse to this process, and I'm not even averse to being a little bored, if that boredom leads somewhere - The Rabble's Orlando, for instance, plays beautifully with this particular tension.
David Young's music employs many familiar tropes of New Music - using found objects as instruments, or using instruments in different ways (bowing everything in sight, for instance) - but fatally lacks any energy of discovery: somehow I've heard it all before, done better. The experience of time as a kind of psychic space was very different, for instance, to listening to the almost vanishingly absent scores of Morton Feldman, in which silence and note are so acutely judged that they cumulatively become an exercise in plenitude. As is particularly clear in The Labyrinth, potential theatrical or musical tension is immediately dissipated in an increasingly uninhabited silence or in movement or imprecise choreography that too often seems simply meaningless.
I wondered why each section was 49 minutes - was it some kind of numerology, seven by seven by three (which adds up to 147 and then reduces to 3, the most sacred number of all... but why was I thinking this?) The time felt increasingly arbitrary, the attention demanded by the performance increasingly obscure. Mainly there was an ever-lengthening feeling of attenuation, of ideas and gestures becoming thinner and thinner as time passed. And for me it passed very slowly indeed.
The Minotaur Trilogy, by Margaret Cameron and David Young, performed by Caroline Lee, Deborah Kayser and Hellen Sky, musicians Mark Cauvin, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Anastasia Russell-Head. Chamber Made Opera and Melbourne Festival, Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre. Closed.