As part of WhoAreWe? at The Tate Exchange I worked for a week creating a mini concept performance of Menotti's The Consul, while interacting with guests and fellow artists to discuss themes of displacement, life as a refugee, and the powerful, destructive force of bureaucracy.
Here is a piece I wrote about the experience...
“Generally art comes after dinner when you’ve had a few cocktails and you’ve had your dinner, then you go to the theater or you go to the opera or you go to see a painting show because then you’re also going to get a cocktail at that time. You go to an opening and you look at the other ladies. It is always sort of a social function. In a certain way, I would say that we are the after-dinner mint of society rather than being the bread of society. Actually, I think it is very important that people, even business people, should realize that, first of all, they use us all the time, from morning until night. They get up in the morning, they go to take a shower and they whistle a tune, and who wrote that tune? A composer. They choose a necktie. Who designed that necktie? Somebody who studied even minor art. I mean, it’s not art, but still it is somebody who studied art. They go into their very modern office which was designed by an architect who has seen the paintings of Mondrian, certainly, and so on. And his wife has to choose a dress, and who has designed the dress? It is an artist, whose pencil they used. Practically everything that we touch or use in modern life has some connection with art. And I think that is very important that people should realize how much they need art in their life.” – Gian Carlo Menotti
Menotti wanted audiences to see art as more than a social event; as ‘the bread’ of society as he
calls it. Nowhere is this more clearly expressed than in his political thriller The Consul. Written in the wake of the Second World War, as borders sprang up across a divided Europe shared among the victors, in which people were left stranded and stateless, the opera tells the terrifying story of Magda Sorel, whose life is threatened by the bureaucracy that prevents her family from leaving the country and finding safety elsewhere.
The opera highlights the pain caused by treating people as merely cogs in a bureaucratic machine. At no time in the 60 years since it was composed has it seemed quite as relevant as it does today.
Magda’s aria has never sounded so poignant:
To this we’ve come,
That men withhold the world from men
No ship, no shore for him who drowns at sea,
No home nor grave for him who dies on land.
To this we’ve come,
That man be born a stranger upon god’s Earth
That he be chosen without a chance for choice;
That he be hunted without the hope of refuge.
To this we’ve come. To this we’ve come
Opera and Conversation
In many ways opera undermines and defies conversation and communication. The volume, the power, the awkward height of the sounds, the difficulty of the music, the language barriers, the Opera House with its distance and darkness, its pretensions and unwritten rules; all these aspects of the Art make it a form to be marvelled at and exulted by
audiences, rather than conserved as a real means of engagement. Yet, for one week we brought the operatic medium into a shared space and asked the audience to converse with us – to learn our music and to share their own with us. This was a thrilling project and we did not know where exactly it would take us. There is, however, something fitting about opera as a medium through which to explore and condemn ‘hostile environments.’ The barrage of sound and the sheer vocal power of an operatic performer can be terrifying in its intensity. The pitch and volume, the frequencies the voice hits, make it an inescapable noise – almost like the cry of a baby – it demands attention. Often the conventional spaces in which opera is performed can seem daunting and hostile to those not learned in their etiquette.
In our first improvisations, we shifted Menotti’s music and text, making it more accessible and adding a sense of immediacy to it. We interspersed operatic segments with conversation as well as confrontation, provoking and shocking those we engaged with. We explored how this theatrical and almost cruel assault on guests and collaborators alike might heighten and change their relationship with the power of the sung text. We could not have predicted the effect we were to have on some audience members by taking opera outside of the opera house and outside of the typical audience-performer relationship.
During the week we saw tears, heard stories, saw shock, heard people’s horror and were constantly encouraged to take our work to more people.
Here are a few audience reactions:
Audience reaction 1 – On our first day, I talked to an ex-British Army officer, originally born in Zimbabwe. He was overwhelmed by the power of the voice as a vehicle for drama. He related his own experiences dealing with racism and his fear and disgust at the recent ‘Windrush scandal.’ He was surprised at the content of Menotti’s opera, and how powerfully it related to present events. We talked at length about how history seems to repeat itself, and how, perhaps, only Art with its power to move people and create empathy, can break the cycle. He shared his own music, writing a lullaby from Zimbabwe for us.
Audience reaction 2 – A Ukrainian man I talked with was fascinated by the politics of the piece and celebrated the work. He insisted angrily that we could not change anything though music. We talked at length about this. I agreed that opera was an unlikely vehicle for direct political change. Yet, I was able to point out how effective opera had been throughout the nineteenth century at confronting those in power with their own hypocrisy. We discussed how powerful the human voice is as an instrument and how inescapable the operatic sound is. While the words and the story work on the brain, the melody tugs on something much more primordial. We talked about our lullaby project, and I expressed how this represented that primordial, trans-continental element of music. We sing to our babies – no matter where we are from. We finally agreed to disagree – but this direct exchange of ideas could not happen in an opera-house context, and is exactly what the WhoAreWe? Project was supposed to elicit.
Audience reaction 3 – On our final day, I talked with a regular opera-goer. He was adamant that the work must be extended; a full performance must be created, and it should be taken to a bigger space. I was keen to explain that we really wanted to engage with our audience, and that a more conventional space might stifle this project. He suggested more open art spaces, such as the Barbican, or South Bank. He saw that the work could be both a moving narrative performance and a launch-pad for discussion and debate. He felt that this direct and controversial voice was exactly what the opera world needed to shake aging audiences out of their comfort zones and force them to see their political views in new lights.
As an artist, one of the most exciting aspects of this project was developing ways in which to share Menotti’s music, not only with audiences, but with the Community Gospel Choir members we worked with, many of whom had never experienced opera. Many people see opera and opera singers as cold, elite and un-singable. We proved that this was not the case. Hearing voices of all different kinds bringing Menotti’s score to life, proved to me that opera really can be for everyone. The choir members threw themselves into the music and into engaging with audiences and telling their own stories. They truly brought the project to life.
As a performer, I found that embodying a woman whose life has been torn apart by bureaucracy but who refuses to lose her dignity, both empowering and exhausting. While fighting the urge to make her a figure of despair and pity, the strength I gave her often, ironically, brought me to tears. As a personal journey, the work brought me closer to the struggle of refugees, and the draining terror of fighting for just a small space in which to live free. The desperation to not weaken oneself and remain strong in the face of adversity can create a state of psychosis in which the need to cry battles the determination not to do so.