After wowing audiences with their mesmeric holographic opera in our Winter Festival 2012, Opera Erratica are back with Triptych, blending avant garde performance, contemporary art, and of course, opera. We caught up with their director Patrick Eakin Young about the creation of the piece, the collaborative process, and what to expect from this daring new work…
Could you tell us a bit more about Triptych? What should audiences expect to see and hear?
Triptych is a trio of new music-theatre pieces, which push the boundaries of what we consider ‘opera’. There is a conscious attempt to reverse-engineer the form and come up with new possibilities for sung drama. The piece as a whole is loosely based on Puccini’s famous triptych Il Trittico. We boiled that opera down to its most essential – a comedy, a tragedy, and a piece about nuns – and decided to create three new pieces from those starting points. Where we ended up, however, is quite far from Puccini!
All three pieces are performed by five singers (four women, one man). Christian Mason’s nun piece is mostly a cappella, and portrays a nun’s investiture ceremony. Over the top, we hear the recorded voices of a middle-aged film maker as he interviews his first love who later became a nun. Thomas Smetryn’s comedy piece is made up entirely of found text and music. The libretto is pieced together from English language lessons from the 1940s, and the music is made from samples of old records. Chris Mayo’s tragedy tells the story of architectural photographer Richard Nickel who disappeared one day in 1972. It uses the rhythmic quality of half-sung text combined with an electronic tape accompaniment to tell a strange and tragic story.
How would you describe Opera Erratica to someone who had never seen your work?
That is a difficult question! I like to say we make visual-musical spectacle that is formally complex and emotionally present. It is a definition that gives us a lot of leeway. Our last piece, Toujours et Près de Moi, was a holographic piece set to renaissance madrigals. The next thing we’re doing is a multi-channel audio and video installation piece called Celestina at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Our work often incorporates video, and collaborations across art forms, but music is always at the centre of everything we do.
As a producer, how do you choose the artists you’re working with? What would catch your eye?
Finding collaborators is probably the most important and most difficult thing to do. I like to work with artists who are willing to think outside the box: people who have a unique way of approaching a problem and are not confined by how they assume things should be done. In terms of performers, I’m always looking for great singers, unique voices, but one’s attitude to a project is equally important. Similarly with composers, I’m interested in people whose music is about asking questions—of themselves, of the audience, of the form. I’m not that interested in people who have the answers. Answers in art tend to be boring, pedantic, prescribed. Questions are much more interesting, they open you up to the unknown, to doubt, but also to discovery.
You’re working with three composers to create the music for Triptych and you’re taking a collaborative approach to devise the work – could you shed some insights on the creative process? What do you think the benefits of collaborative working are?
We very consciously created the pieces for Triptych through a devised, workshop process. I wanted to explore a creation process that is familiar to contemporary dance and theatre, but largely unknown in classical music and opera. There is a lot of mythology surrounding ‘the composer’ in opera, and I wanted to confront the idea that great works of art must leap fully formed from the brain of a single genius. There is a lot of possibility in working through things together, in riffing off other people’s ideas, and creating things through collaboration. This process has been about dialogue, between the composer, the librettists, the performers, and the designers. Obviously, everyone has to, at some point, do their part on their own—the composer is ultimately responsible for the music, the librettist the libretto, etc.—but hopefully through this process we have ended up with pieces that amplify everyone’s ideas, arriving at a work that could not have been created in any other way.
And finally, what are you inspired by? What drives you to create art?
Two impulses drive me as an artist: I want to make something new, and I want to feel. My first impulse—to make something new—is a bit self-defeating, because nothing is ever new. But it is this restlessness to try new approaches, to make new stories, to create new experiences that drives to me create work. My second impulse—to feel something—is the reason I work with music. Music operates on the body before it reaches the brain, and that is what I like about it. Even the most intricately constructed, intellectual or abstract composition affects you physically, emotionally first. There is something magical about that experience—of knowing through feeling—and that’s what I’m looking for when I make art.
Monday 9 – Tuesday 10 June
6.30pm / 8.30pm
Wilton’s Music Hall