Tête à Tête Opera Festival, RADA Studios 12th August, 7.00pm
Music and Words: Anna Appleby
Direction and Choreography: Dane Hurst
Citizens of Nowhere is a short but intense opera-ballet, which explores challenges of conflict and identity. The plot is relatively straightforward — three islanders wait for a ferry to take them to the mainland, where they are stranded once their return ferry is wrecked before their eyes. Returning home they realise their fellow islanders made almost no effort to help the mainlanders who died in the wreck, and decide to leave. Despite the simple plot, the themes of loss, conflict and identity crisis which it highlights are complex and chillingly familiar in the current political climate. The intimacy of the RADA Studios gave composer and librettist Anna Appleby a fantastic space in which to explore these issues with some fresh and gripping writing.
Citizens of Nowhere bore little resemblance to traditional opera with singers centre stage, musicians hidden in a pit and dancers brought on in a troupe for some light entertainment between arias. The interplay between dancers, singers and instrumental musicians on stage was compelling and unusual, as all three groups were given an equal voice. This equality was reiterated further as there were just three of each type of artist, each shifting from foreground to background, blending into accompaniment and striking out into a solo role at different points in the work.
The musicians’ place at the front of the stage meant that their communication with the singers and dancers was clear to see, and conductor Simon Robertshaw did a fantastic job of keeping the ensemble tight and full of energy. Occasionally this placing posed challenges as the singers struggled to fully project some diction when standing behind the ensemble. Surtitles, a thinner musical texture or slightly different blocking would have perhaps been useful for these moments. This said, RNCM singers Emma Wheeler, Ann Wilkes and Helen Lacey tackled Appleby’s challenging score with great skill, passing melodies seamlessly in-tune to the instrumentalists when required and commanding centre stage for some impressive solo moments.
Dancers Zunnur Sazali, Eleanor Stephenson and Liam Giacuzzo also had to act, and delivered their lines with great charisma and conviction. Both Appleby’s words and Dane Hurst’s choreography were extremely effective, giving a strong sense of different newcomers constantly battling to project their own story, whilst fighting to drown out the voices of the others. The dialogue between singers and dancers was also full of energy and interest. The dancers mirrored the singers’ emotions and conflictions through their movement for the main part, but there was a striking moment when the singers moved to the back of the stage and sang in the shadows, as if accompanying the dancers’ movements which took centre-stage. Here we saw the mediums of opera and ballet blur and entwine as the performers expressed similar feelings in very different ways, which was fascinating to see.
To complete the sense of all three groups of the ensemble being fully immersed in the overarching narrative, it would have been interesting to see the musicians also in costume. Robertshaw maintained constant visual and musical communication between the musicians and the singers, so that it was hard not to see him as almost another character or silent messenger in the work. Appleby’s writing for oboe, bassoon and cello explored a rich variety of timbres and colours, from dark dramatic duet work for the bassoon and cello, to some haunting and extremely high oboe lines, pushing the instrument to its limit with great effect. RNCM musicians George Strickland, Alice Braithwaite and Kotryna Šiugždinytė clearly knew the complex score well, bringing conviction and musicality to Appleby’s music. The small performance space and the richness of the ensemble’s timbre meant that we occasionally lacked truly quiet dynamics which would have highlighted the more desolate moments well, but in contrast the stronger parts of the music often felt like there were more than three musicians on stage. Opening the work with pre-recorded music and then shifting to live ensemble also provided an interesting textural change, and drew us into the plot with a feeling of closeness and immediacy as the singers came on stage to the live music.
Within forty minutes Citizens of Nowhere gave us a wealth of collaborative art, with dancers, singers and musicians painting some desolate scenes of loss, and a wild struggle for identity. The size of the performance space meant that at times we got a claustrophobic feeling of people trapped in new and old places, unable to find themselves or relate to those around them, which struck a jarring note in today’s world of Brexit and refugee crises. A new piece of art which emulates and empathises with current social and political worries with such a strong standard of musicianship and choreography is a great achievement, and I look forward to the next collaboration between Appleby and Hurst, who have created a fresh and thought-provoking piece of work.
© Emily RH Wilson