“It risks spiraling out of control with so many disparate elements”
Bread and Circuses 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 20th performance in house, or the September 24th interactive broadcast online, don’t worry. A recording of the interactive broadcast is available, also online, for 28 days.
Bread and Circuses is many things. Perhaps too many. Described as “an opera in two acts and a wrestling show”, this creation (concept by Mark Johnson, with story by Charles Ogilvie, and music by Liam Wade) is much more than that simple description. It’s also an opera with a video game played in real time, a wannabe revenge drama, a history play, and a musical. The title Bread and Circuses is apt, however. It’s a reference to the Roman gladiatorial games, which were often staged as shallow entertainments to distract the masses. Johnson, Ogilvie and Wade’s Bread and Circuses takes its inspiration from a modern equivalent—World Wide Wrestling. In particular, the occasion during the 2007 Wrestlemania, when a certain Donald John Trump won a bet with WWW owner Vince McMahon. This is the moment, allegedly, where Trump first realized the power of the crowd’s roar of approval as he shaved McMahon’s head live on stage. But the origin story of Bread and Circuses is not the problem. The problem is trying to knit these elements together into a coherent performance piece.
A wrestling event starring Trump is an unusual origin story for any drama, let alone an opera. But we are definitely in “truth is stranger than fiction” territory these days, so “unusual” is somehow appropriate. It’s also difficult to tell what an opera in two acts might look like, when we can only sample three excerpts in thirty minutes. COVID-19 restrictions mean that there are a maximum of two performers on stage, with a pianist. There is a screen above the performers to add context. The story seems to be about wrestling rivalries on and off the stage. Also a murder that female wrestler Shawnee feels she has to avenge. It’s about values, strangely enough. But for unclear reasons, the creators of Bread and Circuses decided that a 90s style video game of wrestlers, complete with electronic sound effects, was the way to add context. Don’t get me wrong. It’s beautifully and authentically designed (congratulations to Dev Bye-a-Jee and his talented team at Ravensbourne University). The video game device does allow for the compression of characterization and plot points into some pithy subtitles flashing above the wrestlers. But in opera, pixels are a poor substitute for singers on stage.
It’s possible to see Bread and Circuses becoming a layered, even subtle, work of irony in its final version. One could also see it as a leveller in the culture wars struggle—a “low art” “high art” mashup. Or, if you prefer, low blows alongside high notes. But it’s asking a lot of an audience to get on board with the version presented at the Cockpit Theatre on September 20th 2020. And when the performers morph from what sounds suspiciously like musical theatre to opera (and soprano Camilla Kerslake shines as female wrestler Shawnee) it’s not unfair to wonder where we’re going to end up. I get that Bread and Circuses is a satire—and there was more than a bit in the excerpts, of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, musically speaking. But this work hasn’t yet found its centre. It risks spiraling out of control with so many disparate elements.
“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.