Songs of lockdown — the best new operas online

Richard Fairman – Financial Times

Artistic inspiration alone does not determine what music a composer writes. Politics and social change have been important influences, at times shaking the course of musical history to its roots . . .

Given how long it will take for the financial losses incurred during the pandemic to work their way through the system, we could be facing years of retrenchment in the arts. . . .The internet is already brimming with new operas specifically written for streaming. Many are short (five to 10 minutes), small in scale (up to five or six performers) and, because they were commissioned in the early days of the pandemic, very specific in their subject matter. Watching one after another is not recommended. Pandemic-related isolation, grief and a feeling of powerlessness loom large, but alongside the lingering shots of lone souls pacing deserted streets or languishing in abandoned buildings, there is variety to be had if one chooses carefully.

Here is a round-up of what is already out there ….

The OperaHarmony online collective was first in the field and it is still the biggest. Having launched in August, it has now reached its full quota of 20 mini-operas in four collections. All are available to view free of charge on the EU-funded OperaVision website.Up to five performers, a combination of singers and instrumentalists, were allowed for each project and the films, by 20 different composers and production teams, vary from sophisticated and arty to a cartoon-like collage . . .

The most prestigious offering so far is Eight Songs from Isolation, commissioned by conductor Oliver Zeffman. …. Its selling point is the star list of composers. Thomas Adès, Julian Anderson, Helen Grime and Nico Muhly are in the mix, each contributing a mini-opera, adding up to about 45 minutes for the set of eight. . . .

The nearest thing to a real opera, and the most entertaining of those under review, comes from Grange Park Opera. A Feast in the Time of Plague, with music by Alex Woolf and libretto by David Pountney, is based on a short story by Pushkin set at the time of London’s Great Plague of 1665-66. A cast of 12 assemble for a final meal, watched over by a Death/Judas figure, hinting at the rites of the Last Supper. In the second half they expire one by one, but not before each gets the chance to sing a solo number from an array of wildly diverse styles that sum up their characters. Woolf delivers music of chameleon-like adaptability and the production was filmed live in Grange Park’s theatre. The downside is that there is only a piano accompaniment, but the cast is high-quality, led by Claire Booth, Simon Keenlyside, Peter Hoare and Clive Bayley. For her farewell number Susan Bullock, playing a latter-day Cassandra who saw the plague coming, gets a wickedly witty take-off of Kurt Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny”, worth hearing just for itself. Thank heavens that somebody gives us a laugh.