Joby Burgess performing Thrashing the Sea God – Flickr/The-Queen’sHall

Thrashing the Sea God: Joby Burgess performs John McLeod’s short opera

tete-a-tete opera logoThe Tête à Tête Opera Festival at the Riverside Studios, London, seeks to present new and challenging operatic works and this year featured more than seventy performances representing over thirty companies. The spectrum was incredibly broad and represented the work of some of the leading composers of today. What makes this festival so engaging is its insightful attempts at presenting audiences with performances taking place not only in studios but in the foyer of the Riverside. Many of the operas are on the festival website and this will remain a great resource for those wishing to relive their experiences of new and often forward-thinking opera.

Joby Burgess performing Thrashing the Sea God - Flickr/The-Queen'sHall

Joby Burgess performing Thrashing the Sea God – Flickr/The Queen’s Hall

The festival programme for 2012 included the mini-opera Thrashing the Sea God by the Scottish composer John McLeod, which showed how much McLeod’s travels throughout China had influenced this piece for solo percussionist. The performer is dressed in the costume of a principal male soprano of the Imperial Chinese Opera of Canton, and has to be  a percussionist. Joby Burgess performed his way through the story on a wide range of tuned and untuned percussion that adorned the stage. He played the part of a wife deserted by her husband who has become First Scholar. The deserted wife settles on suicide and the opera takes place shortly before her death where she reads the letter of divorce. Burgess certainly looked the part in the Chinese costume and remained throughout in character of the forlorn wife, his movements mostly stylistically appropriate for Chinese opera. At times comical in his movements, Burgess captured the poise and reverence before every percussion episode, moving between four collections of instruments.

Joby Burgess

Joby Burgess

One of these sets of instruments was a set of gongs at the far left of the stage, and Burgess would frame each episode of material by returning to the gongs. Each episode of material was followed by either destruction of the sheet music for that musical moment, or the wife would caress the sheet music. The centre of the stage progressively became filled with the fragments of ripped sheet music until the final moment when the wife takes her own life. The removal of the sheet music from the music stand was always a flamboyant gesture, varying in grandeur after each percussion episode. Even the tearing of the sheet music at the centre of the stage reflected the emotional intent of the music it followed, varying from aggressive attempts to tear the large manuscript to more deliberate and tender ripping. It was as if each episode was a reflection on the divorce letter and the ritualistic tearing a manisfestation of the wife’s process of coming to terms with the end of her marriage.

Burgess sang the soprano role well, in an appropriately strained falsetto, and his percussion playing was colourful and incredibly skilful throughout. Everything about his performance was in keeping with the character and he never stopped being the wife throughout – every percussion episode preceded by a martial arts style poised posture. McLeod’s music captured the story with skill and a musical rhetoric that exploited the possible colours of the percussion with aplomb, tinged with something of the Orient.  The libretto itself was rather minimal, but it felt like the right length to capture the process of the wife’s preparations for her suicide.  This is an opera—if indeeed that is the correct term for this work—that relies far more on the music to tell the story than the text.

John McLeod - Photo by Wojtek Kutyla

John McLeod – Photo by Wojtek Kutyla

This was a beautifully conceived piece of music theatre, with the lighting sensitively balanced to capture the dramatic moments well. It will always require a percussionist of virtuosic skill to capture the sheer range expected in McLeod’s music  and Burgess seemed ideal for the role.

Steven Berryman is a composer and teacher working and living in London. Follow him on Twitter: @Steven_Berryman