The Cockpit Theatre
Reviewed – 23 September 2020
“a fascinating experiment in the creation of new operas”
The Trilobite is part of a socially distanced live performance series at the Cockpit Theatre brought together by the Tête á Tête Opera Festival. But if you missed the September 17th performance in house, or the September 19th interactive broadcast online, don’t worry. A recording of the interactive broadcast is available, also online, for 28 days.
The Trilobite, or The Fall of Mr. Williams, is the creation of opera maker Elfyn Jones. It is the final piece in a triptych (as Jones likes to refer to his trilogy) of operas that are linked not so much by theme, as by modes of production. While working on his PhD thesis at Goldsmiths College, Jones began experimenting with various ways of integrating sound into opera. The Trilobite has a number of innovative examples of his experiments in sound design. These, married to a complex and interesting plot, and coupled to some richly ironic singing, make for a compelling experience.
So what do ambitious geography teachers, trilobites, a love triangle, angels, and a fall from England’s highest cliff all have to do with each other? It is remarkable how Elfyn Jones manages to bring together these disparate elements in only thirty minutes of performance time. A passion for trilobites, together with ambitions of giving a lecture at a prestigious Geography Institute, lead Mr. Williams up the slippery slope of the Great Hangman cliff on Exmoor. There, attempting to protect his students from falling, he himself topples over the edge. As he falls, we find out that he has lost the love of his life to the gym teacher. More importantly, perhaps, we learn that the discovery of a new type of trilobite was made, not by him, but by a sixth form student of his. In the last ten seconds of the hapless Mr. Williams’ life, a couple of judgmental angels comment ironically on these events.
It’s a pretty extraordinary idea to use the last ten seconds of a man’s life as the basis for a plot. But what makes this piece equally arresting, are the sounds, in all their manifestations. Not just the singing, which are skillful performances by baritone Peter Edge, tenor Lars Fischer (Mr. Williams), and mezzo-soprano Anna Prowse. It’s also the way in which Jones puts all these elements together. For the performance at the Cockpit Theatre during the 2020 pandemic, Fischer was, in fact, the only performer who appeared on stage. Edge and Prowse had to perform in more challenging circumstances, as their parts (and they each played several) were recorded separately during lockdown, with only a green screen for company. Not that Fischer’s performing platform was easy, by any means. It must be quite a feat to sing while imagining yourself falling through space.
The magic in The Trilobite emerges in the mixing of the musicians, the singers and the sound effects. Using sound processing software for this opera, Jones creates, for example, the rush of air as Mr. Williams falls through space; water running through sand; a journey in a car through the pouring rain, and voices of complaining sixth formers. This is music of a different kind —a rich subtext to the dramatic events taking place. And through the wizardry of more processing software, Jones was able to combine all the elements—sound effects and music—to create this piece. It’s an intriguing execution of an exciting concept. If there is one criticism to be made, it is that sometimes there is so much going on in Jones’ opera, that it’s hard to take it all in. But as the composer suggests in the discussion that follows the performance online, live performances on stage by both singers and musicians in future post-pandemic productions, should be easier on everyone.
So catch The Trilobite, or The Fall of Mr. Williams, in its current manifestation, while you can. It’s a fascinating experiment in the creation of new operas. And the subject matter notwithstanding, it’s also a lot of fun.
Reviewed by Dominica Plummer
Photography by Claire Shovelton
The Cockpit Theatre as part of Tête à Tête Opera Festival 2020 also available online
Previously reviewed by Dominica: