Six Word Operas, (various)

Tête-a-Tête Opera Festival

13th August, 2010

Sex, Death, Malt Loaf and Zombies...

The Tête-a-Tête Opera Festival has very quickly established itself as an operatic institution, showcasing some of the most cutting-edge, if often totally bizarre new works in the operatic and music theatre world. This tradition has undeniably carried on with this year’s festival featuring a smörgåsbord of diverse works and productions traversing the entirety of the genre from the wholesomely traditional to the wilfully abstract and modern. Tucked away in the middle of the festival was an audacious two night production entitled Six Word Operas which somehow summed up the festival in a nutshell: a microcosm for the festival at large. Here the audience was treated to sixteen new works showcasing, perhaps, the next generation of opera composers in a stripped-down fashion – two singers, four players, six words – there wasn’t to be much meat on these operatic bones.

James Young, John Savournin, Natalie Raybould John Savournin and Natalie Raybould
Photos by: Claire Shovelton

The basic premise for this production was that Ernest Hemingway was apparently bet $10 that he couldn’t write a story using only six words. What resulted was one of the author’s favourite works: “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn”. From this has sprung a whole literary genre with many of the worlds most celebrated (and often hippest) authors trying their hands at matching, or perhaps bettering Hemingway’s work. It figures that eventually someone would have the brainwave of setting some of these utterances to music, and thus Six Word Operas was born. If it is hard for an author to convey a meaningful story in six words, it is perhaps doubly hard for a composer to make a meaningful opera out of those six words, but there the challenge lay and these sixteen composers took it on manfully, if with somewhat mixed results.

As I have often found with contemporary opera, much of it is dark, turgid and instantly forgettable – too many recitatives and not enough arias (though perhaps it is asking a little too much for an aria in a six word opera?). Undeniably the biggest problem with this production is that too many of the works just passed me by, and writing this review the day after I struggle to remember much about them. This, I guess, is to be expected when approaching a diverse group of composers each with their own particular axe to grind – stylistic cohesion isn’t going to be top of the list, though a little individuality wouldn’t have gone amiss. Too many of the works were a thick soup of dissonance punctuated by dramatic outbursts from the two singers and totally unnecessary percussion (too much/many bongos – if anything ruins the moment, it has to be bongos). That being said there were some genuinely interesting and somewhat lovely moments to be found amidst the unending soup.

Three works stood out: Benjamin Ellin’s Momentary Distraction, Phillip Cooke’s Progeny and Jordan Hunt’s Breakfast – three very different works, but all with something interesting and original to say.

Ellin’s work was perhaps the most succinct of the evening, a simple, exciting moto- perpetuum set up a dramatic scena which relayed the drama without over-staying its welcome. His chosen six words “Momentary distraction, scream outside, door ajar.” setting up a simple if effective dramatic premise which the composer reacted to admirably. Cooke’s work had perhaps the most emotional impact with his chosen six words, “I’m your future, child. Don’t cry.” relating directly to the birth of his first child (a cute if somewhat whimsical subplot). The combination of a creepy music-box and an austere vocal duet giving way to lush lounge jazz, was a beguiling and memorable effect. Hunt’s Breakfast with its bittersweet text of “Watching Columbo, malt loaf and tears.” set up a surreal and crystalline soundworld which one felt might crack and shatter at any time, similar to the emotional discourse on display. It also reminded me of my student days, though it was Diagnosis Murder not Columbo that accompanied the mid-afternoon tears.

Honourable mentions also for Piers Tattersal’s domestic abuse in reverse, Please, this is everything I swear, Matthew West’s melodrama, Train Late and Mark Horton’s Five Zombies (perhaps the first and only zombie opera? Answers on a postcard to Operaticus please...).

The Warehouse Ensemble played admirably and had a superb compère in pianist and musical director James Young who plotted a thematic journey through these often wilfully diverse and eclectic offerings. Baritone John Savournin just about coped with the repertoire though looked and sounded much happier with some rather than others. The same couldn’t be said of soprano Natalie Raybould who was uniformly excellent and brought so much to even the most under-composed of repertoire. Her acting ability matched her singing and defined the character-based works such as those by Tattersal and West. Her ability to switch from the experimental and avant-garde to the sentimental and traditional seamlessly is one of the most potent weapons in her armoury, and was greatly used in this performance. It can’t be long until she is given a major role by a major company.

So, an entertaining and thought-provoking production in an entertaining and thought-provoking festival - and sixteen operas in just over an hour. Shakespeare said “brevity is the soul of wit” and Six Word Operas has shown me that an opera can be told is six words – however, I now fancy something grander. Wagner anyone?

Bottom line: Only six words, plenty of invention


Catherine Elford


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Production Credits

MD: James Young
Warehouse Ensemble


Baritone John Savournin
Soprano: Natalie Raybould