Now in its ninth year, Grimeborn stands as east London’s answer to champagne, strawberries and washed-out picnics on the South Downs. It must symbolise the gentrification of previously gritty London that opera, in the form of The Medium and The Wanton Sublime, had sold out on a Wednesday evening, and that no less a person than Joanna Lumley, the doyenne of Jaguar-driving men everywhere, was in attendance. Perhaps finding La Boheme or Tosca had sold out would have been less surprising, but these are not such well known pieces. The Medium is so obscure that it does not even warrant a mention on Peter Maxwell Davies’ Wikipedia page, whilst The Wanton Sublime is an entirely new composition from Tarik O’Regan.
This blog does not profess to know much about opera, and was partly attending due to the strength of the festival’s wonderful punning title. However at around ninety minutes including the interval, the evening provides the opportunity for a taster session of what classical music is all about.
Both pieces are written to be performed solo, and are taken on by mezzo-soprano, Hai-Ting Chinn. From a lay-person’s perspective Chinn was fantastic in both roles. Previously seen in Einstein on the Beach, it must be strange to perform in the incredibly intimate Arcola Studio space. It places the performers within touching distance of the audience, and allows for a degree of intimacy that would not be possible in a traditional opera house. Chin handles this very well, and watching a singer close-up made apparent the amount of acting that goes on alongside the singing. It is a fascinating process as it takes a very different skillset to acting with written dialogue. The libretto must be sung which must make vocalising emotion difficult, and as a result much more reliance is place on externalised gestures (much as you would find in silent pictures).
In The Medium, Chinn proves to be a very expressive performer. You can read her like a book, and this helps bring the audience across at times when the words become a little unclear underneath the vocal contortions. Chinn enunciates clearly but the acoustics of the space can work against her, and in The Wanton Sublime, which employs a small-scale orchestra, the sound can overwhelm.
The Medium holds a fascination as it is written to be sung a cappella. For 45 minutes. It is more entertaining and less challenging than that may sound, although I think it would be stronger if it was reduced to a half hour, as its themes do get a little repetitive. However watching Chinn provide vocal gymnastics as she gives life to the voices she can hear is never less than interesting, and what starts as easy humour slowly becomes increasingly uncomfortable as you get the sense of a woman teetering on the edge of hysteria.
I was very impressed with The Wanton Sublime. It falls into the category of accessible modern classical music. That modern classic wasn’t all testing compositions from the disciples of Stockhausen and Phillip Glass was news to me, but The Wanton Sublime is highly listenable and seemed to sit within a more traditional classical framework. O’Regan’s music flits neatly between a choppy, interrupted sound that evokes a modern cityscape throbbing with life and a pastoral setting where the music contains a fluidity that echoes the rhythms of the natural environment.
The piece uses a libretto adapted from a collection by the feminist poet, Anna Rabinowitz. It depicts the Virgin Mary as a human figure autonomous to the sanctified persona imposed on her by the church and that she is regularly associated with. In a wonderful moment, Chinn, dressed as a modern city woman, strips off her suit and stands hands on hips daring to confront God with her sexuality. There is even a brilliantly insouciant touch where, after being blinded by the light shining from heaven, she dons a pair of sunglasses and defiantly stares back into the light.
It is an excellent piece both musically and thematically, and sung beautiful by Chinn – although at times the vocals did risk being drowned out by the instruments. It is a well thought out pairing, as both short pieces examine the issue of women’s voices being drowned out by institutionalised patriarchy. The Medium explores the oppressiveness of the Victorian age, whilst The Wanton Sublime takes a powerful view on how Mary had become subverted from a normal human into a divine figure by those who want her to symbolise their ideal woman. If this is what we can expect from Grimeborn then I look forward to its 10th anniversary year.
Check out The Medium (part 1)
Performed by Anne-May Krüger – mezzo-soprano