Opera Now, November 21, 2008

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Opera Now
  • 2008 November 21

Live Reviews

Welcome to the voice

Steve Nieve

Antonia Couling

Opera Now reports on a world premiere, starring pop icons Sting and Elvis Costello

As Steve Nieve and Muriel Teodori’s opera Welcome to the Voice is a work about the celebration of the human voice, it was a pleasant surprise not to have one’s expectations of melody and beauty dashed. The overture begins with a single, open, almost vocal line for cello, building to clusters of clawing strings with muted trumpet cutting across. A back screen projected a steelworks – its fire and imagined noise very much at odds with the music we were hearing. After a few minutes, the mood changes to flowering piano – pleasing, expressive – then changes again to reflective, lighter string exchanges. Thus the musical mood was set, with strings and piano featuring most, and no brass apart from solo interjections.

As the central figure Dionysos, a steelworker and son of a Greek immigrant, Sting made his entrance stage-front through the mist, and addressed the audience with his story: how he discovered opera one day, which led to an obsessive collecting opera recordings. It becomes clear that he is waiting near the steps of the opera house, as he does every day and night, to catch a glimpse of the opera singer who has become the embodiment of his obsession.

On a cold set of glass building façades and scaffolding (sets by Bernard Arnould), we see him visited by the Ghosts of the Opera – Carmen, Butterfly and Norma – who beseech him to die and join them in opera heaven. Pulling at him from the other side is Dionysos’ Friend, played by Sting’s son Joe Sumner (who must have an exact replica of his father’s voicebox in his throat, so similar is the essential tone of his voice), who constantly tries to persuade him that his passion for opera will make him lose his fight for real causes.

The workers sing the names of their heroes, while Dionysos lists the names of composers. In a beautiful declamatory aria, he expresses his passion for the power of the human voice in all its forms, from opera to the lullaby and songs of freedom. Eventually, Dionysos is offered the chance he has been waiting for when the Opera Singer comes out of a perfume shop. He tries to kiss her, but she is afraid and pushes him away. The police arrive along with a huge crowd of bystanders, the homeless and Dionysos’ workmates.

The Chief of Police (Elvis Costello) utters a raging diatribe against the street people and just as Dionysos is about to be taken off to prison, the Opera Singer stands up for Dionysos with a passionate declaration of love. Her words save him. Everyone rejoices, except the Chief of Police who expresses his fear that he may never feel such an emotion.

He then explains to Dionysos that the Opera Singer has actually left for Tokyo and that she spoke up only to save herself from bad publicity. Dionysos is in despair. But the Ghosts of the Opera interfere and create a huge windstorm, which forces the cancellation of all plane flights. The Opera Singer re-appears and Dionysos is filled with renewed hope on seeing her. The two agree on the ‘unlikely’ nature of their encounter and conclude the opera with a duet.

Dressed in shabby, muted greys – almost tramp-like – Dionysos is very much a Brechtian figure whose journey of discovery leads us to the understanding of a lesson – in this case, the appreciation of the human voice. The music too is reminiscent of Weill (indeed Weill is listed as one of Dionysos’ composer heroes – a clue perhaps to Nieve’s influences). The libretto is rich and flowing pretty much most of the time, falling only occasionally into the slightly preaching, but not enough to detract from the impact of the opera’s message.

The juxtaposition of the pop voices of Sting and Costello with the classical voices of the opera singers was intentional as a means of underlining the different types of beauty the human voice can possess. The piece was written with these artists in mind and had already been recorded in 2007 – with Barbara Bonney as the opera singer. Sting himself opted for a slightly more musical theatre voice than we are accustomed to hearing from him, but was nonetheless consistantly true to the idiosyncracies of his own voice. Costello seemed to struggle slightly more with the leaps and range demanded of him, but again we are familiar with his sound and Nieve wrote sensitively for him, allowing the pathos that is inherent in Costello’s voice to come out. It was very effective to have two such unique and instantly recognisable voices placed against the more general, flowing beauty of the opera singers. And all four opera singers were outstanding. The Ghosts – Marie-Ange Todorovich as Carmen, Sonya Yoncheva as Butterfly and Anna Gabier as Norma – fulfilled their roles to the max, both physically and vocally. But the crowning glory had to be Sylvia Schwartz as Lily, the Opera Singer. In a most beautiful piece of writing for the voice, her declaration of love for Dionysos displayed the entire range of her sensitive, spun tone.

In all, Nieve should be congratulated for his ability to display the full beauty of the voices he is writing for – a rare gift these days – and one which gives meaning to the whole argument of the opera. Little wonder that there was a spontaneous standing ovation at the end.


Antonia Couling reviews the premiere of Welcome To The Voice on Thursday November 20, 2008 at the Théâtre du Châtelet, Paris, France.


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Photos credit to Marie-Noëlle Robert.


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