Opera for the modern age: Alex Caballero reviews the Oxford Contemporary Opera Festival

Music News

The words ‘contemporary opera’ are enough to make the average person somewhat nervous; quite frankly, even the word ‘opera’ is.

Conjuring images of overdramatised and inaccessible performances, reserved for the upper echelons of society, one would imagine that marketing contemporary opera would be far from the easiest job in the world. However, attending the second sold-out show of the Oxford Contemporary Opera Festival in St. Hilda’s JDP Music Room, it became clear that this was not the case. Far from being overdramatised or inaccessible, the festival was a celebration of the prodigious compositional and musical talent that Oxford has to offer.

The evening consisted of a trio of short, diverse operas from composers Hani Elias, Zerlina Vulliamy, and Israel Lai; each performance demonstrated that, rather than being some dusty relic, opera can be a powerful art form with which to tackle current affairs.

The first opera of the festival was Hani Elias’s ‘The Outsider’, a reimagination of Camus’s ‘L’Etranger’, featuring a Trump-esque, MRA judge who insisted ‘No one has more respect for women than I do, no one!’. Coloured by funk and jazz influences, supplied by Hani himself on bass, the opera not only reinterpreted Camus’s allegory, but also subverted musical expectations of opera as something grounded in classical music. Complemented by Marnie Shutter’s sharp-witted libretto, ‘The Outsider’ was one of the highlights of the festival.

An altogether different, though no less entertaining, opera followed in the form of Zerlina Vulliamy’s ‘Susannah’. A modern retelling of Mozart’s ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, her opera dealt with similarly topical themes, a tale of workplace sexual harassment, in a comical ‘opera buffa’ manner. Despite being unreservedly more ‘opera’ in its orchestration and music, the themes of ‘Susannah’ were resolutely modern, and any composer who can successfully mesh Mozart and unsolicited dick pics is certainly deserving of respect. The role of Susannah was superbly delivered by Tamsin Sandford Smith, who handled intricate, Mozartian vocal lines, whilst also balancing the comical side of the opera with more serious moments of emotion, of a young women contemplating her place in a male-dominated workplace.

The festival concluded with Israel Lai’s thought-provoking ‘BOU6’, written ‘for all who fight for Hong Kong, in spite of all those who fight against’.  Through his abstract and conceptual interpretation of the Hong Kong protests, framed through the struggle of youth against authority, Israel presented a visceral work that was certainly not for the faint-hearted: an unreservedly powerful note on which to end the event.

The Oxford Contemporary Opera Festival demonstrated both the critical and emotional power of opera, and its creative potential within the modern world; it also highlighted the hard work and talent of everyone involved in its production, be they cast, crew or composers. Following the success of this inaugural festival, I, for one, hope to be seeing this event for many years to come.