Pop-Up Opera from @ScottishOpera at @EdenCourt

I suppose I really only have myself to blame for this one. At the start of the year, I blithely declared that I was going to focus on writing about art specifically, and performing arts – theatre, dance, classical music – more generally. So obviously after a reasonably healthy start to the year – some ballet, an opera, two classical concerts, and a couple of art exhibits – lockdown happened and i couldn’t go and see anything no matter how much I wanted to. Until this weekend. Almost exactly six months since I’d last seen any live music – I’d won tickets to the BBC Scottish Symphony and spent all that week expecting a phone call that the gig was being cancelled – I was back at Eden Court seeing some opera.

Scottish Opera are currently touring three condensed operas around Scotland and performing them out of doors. (Covering a wide range of potential audiences with Song of the Clyde to introduce younger audiences to opera, a light opera in the form of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers and a more traditional opera in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.) A potentially risky move, I thought when I saw it announced, as September in Scotland and the Highlands in particular could go either way for an outdoor show. (I only ended up attending myself due to a last minute cancellation and deciding that even if it rained it was only half an hour, how wet could I really get?!) But they were in luck, last weekend they hit Inverness just as Summer gave one last hurrah, so it was in fact glorious weather to watch an outdoor show. I’m not sure how it works elsewhere, but here in Inverness the show took place in the car park behind Eden Court, using as a stage, the truck that normally appears full of props and scenery whenever the opera’s in town. Attendees showed their digital tickets on arrival, collected their stools and were guided to the appropriate coloured ‘pod’ – really an appropriately coloured hoop on the ground – blue for two people, yellow for four, scattered about a couple of metres apart and there we sat in the sunshine.

The condensed format of the opera made it perfect lunchtime viewing, half an hour of all the best tunes and jokes from a Gilbert and Sullivan production was just unadulterated charm. The cast consists of five performers, one narrator, two musicians and two singers, and they certainly showcased their respective skills and versatility – there was pathos and comedy, joy and rage, everything you could ask for in an afternoon’s entertainment. Well, maybe ice cream, I presume there was good reason that there was no snack concession on the go, but I did feel they missed a trick there.

So if you happen to be in one of the many places around Scotland that they’ve still to visit, then I highly recommend taking a punt on one of the shows, even if the weather is looking less than stellar, the sheer joy of the return to live in person performance more than compensates for getting a little damp at the mini-opera, just bring your brolly, and maybe also your inner child.

Quarantine Culture

I must confess that I haven’t really partaken in most of the ‘quarantine culture’ events that have been thrown up in recent months. As I largely work in news these days, I found myself designated a key worker and in many ways life continued as normal, just with fewer colleagues, more remote working and some adventurous technical work arounds. (And lots and lots of hand gel and anti-viral wipes…) So unlike many people I wasn’t stuck indoors all day, needing innovative media to shake me from the malaise or distract from the same four walls. I spent all day trying to create some kind of normality for the listeners at home, so when I came home what i wanted was comfort viewing of my own. Which mostly looked like vintage cooking programmes, classic concerts, and hours and hours of Radio 3.

I’ve read and heard about all the dramas and comedies filmed in lock down, admired the innovation and resourcefulness of the makers and gradually come to accept that much like the hours of plays and Shakespeare that were also available, they just weren’t going to be part of my lockdown experience. That was until I discovered a range of short ‘culture in quarantine’ programming, from interpretive dance, to virtual art exhibitions to author talks. Perfect for short attention spans and dipping in and out of as the mood takes you.

Dance

Having been a dancer as a child, I’ve retained a deep love of dance and instinctively approve of it, however abstract or ‘interpretative’ it turns out to be. I do however have to be in the mood for it – unless it’s tap dancing, high quality tap dancing is always a drop everything and watch situation. I came to watching ballet in my late 20s so I gravitate to stories I know, as I struggle to follow the narrative – honestly I want to be down the front with the ten year olds watching the dancers feet. It seems that dance on the small screen shouldn’t work but the iPlayer has a selection of very different pieces with very different styles that really appealed.

There’s an amazing piece called Sofa Dance where a collection of acrobats turn their own frustrations at being cooped up into a delightful kinetic performance that makes a virtue of the confined space of the sofa to really explore the limits and possibilities of the form. Playful and entertaining it was the perfect duration to leave the viewer wanting more without getting repetitive. Another favourite was the Swan Lake Bath Ballet which should have been ridiculous but was actually sublime. Dancers from ballet companies around the world had come together to make something fun – and they were clearly having fun – that sounded like something from a comedy sketch, yet they brought such grace to it and took the work so seriously that it felt joyous rather than being silly.

Virtual Art Exhibitions

Over the last few years cinemas have increasingly tried to diversify their revenue streams by showing other kinds of art, with live theatre from the National or live ballet from Covent Garden. One thing I never quite got the point of were exhibition previews. Essentially an hour or so of wandering around an exhibition at someone else’s pace with someone else’s opinions. (There is perhaps a reason that I generally prefer to use an audio guide that I can stop and start at will, to a live tour when visiting a historic building.) Which may seem an odd perspective from someone whose first ‘steady’ job in this industry was with a company that made audio visual displays for museums, but those were designed to either enhance the wider exhibition or as a distinct element of the exhibition itself. They weren’t supposed to replace the exhibition itself. If they were going to appear on line they were either as essentially a trailer to encourage people to visit or to create a record of a temporary exhibition for the benefit of later researchers or academics. Preserving something ephemeral for posterity.

(But then, in terms of increasing the accessibility of art in general I prefer projects that bring art to audiences in rural/remote or disadvantaged communities than those that seek to bring people to the art.)

These virtual exhibitions on the other hand feel much more in line with the tradition of good audio visual displays, highlighting details and providing supplementary materials, such as interviews and film clips, while also making good use of a personable narrator to provide background information and tie all the threads together in a welcoming and accessible fashion. Successfully walking the line between tempting the viewer who may later get a chance to go in person to still attend, yet leaving those who can’t attend satisfied that you’ve had a good flavour of the exhibition.

Scenes for Survival

These were a collaboration between BBC Scotland and various theatre companies around Scotland (mostly via NTS) to create a collection of short theatre pieces, between 5 and 15 minutes long. The format is mostly monologues, but there are a couple of duologues thrown in for variety, and as such they’re quite intense experiences. The actors vary from famous faces to lesser known stage stalwarts to new faces that seem destined for great things, while the writers and directors are a similar mix of safe pairs of hands and new voices trying new things. They cover a wide range of topics and styles – I particularly enjoyed Babe Rainbow – so you can pick and choose as the mood takes you or let yourself ride the emotional rollercoaster by treating them as individual parts of a much greater whole. They’re releasing a few new ones each week – there will be 40 in total and currently there are 32 up, I think – so even if you’ve checked them out before, it’s worth checking back to see what else they have to offer.

Opera, in Scots

Of course it’s not just the BBC producing and showcasing great lockdown art. In June Scottish Opera released a short opera – just thirteen minutes long – called The Narcissistic Fish with a libretto in Scots. It’s a small but perfectly formed short film, with gorgeous music and visuals, cracking performances (both singing and acting) and fabulous sound design. It packs all the essential elements of a good opera – tragedy, comedy, death, love, secrets, betrayal and jealousy – into the hothouse of a restaurant kitchen, where tensions are high and the knives – both metaphorical and literal – are sharp. The use of Scots language helps add to the immediacy of the story, making it feel even more of this current moment than it would otherwise. It feels like an excellent entry point for young audiences who might not think that opera could be for them, and I highly recommend it to anyone who’s interested in giving opera a try but are reluctant to face a whole evening of historical drama in Italian to find out.

Virtual Theatre from @ScottishYT

Back at the start of lockdown, I was delighted to hear about the sizeable chunk of theatre productions that were being made available for online streaming for the duration. I had delightful visions of using my free evenings to watch plays from the National Theatre and catch up on all the amazing Shakespeare adaptations I’ve heard so much about over the years but never had the chance to see. Like many other people I absolutely did not have the concentration for that and have instead been watching hours and hours of cookery programmes – with occasional art and design documentaries thrown in for variety – which has at least kept my lockdown cooking interesting and my food blog has certainly appreciated and benefited from the inspiration. Nonetheless, I was feeling vaguely guilty about all the great theatre I wasn’t watching.

Until tonight! Tonight was the third and final night of Scottish Youth Theatre’s run of their play Once You See The Smoke. They were supposed to be on tour just now, but instead they took the play they were supposed to be touring and adapted it/re-imagined it, for and through Zoom video conferencing. I was intrigued. Plus a few theatre buddies were enthusing about last night’s performance and also it was free, so even if I hated it there was nothing to lose.

Spoiler alert: I did not hate it, I really enjoyed it.

(I even went and made a wee donation to SYT afterwards in lieu of a ticket. Like all theatre organisations, they’re struggling in these troubled times.)

In these days of catch-up, streaming and non-linear viewing, flexibility it seems is key. However, one of the side-effects of life during this pandemic is that for many people time has lost all meaning which makes it easy to put things off with good intention and never get round to them or get round to them and find that they’ve expired. Having to register for a ticket by a deadline, and knowing that it would only be available at that one time as live performance, did an excellent job of focusing the mind. I had a ticket, I was committed, procrastinating was not an option.

A zoom seminar is certainly a unique and very different way to experience theatre, and not one which I’d want to permanently replace the theatre experience with, but it really worked to this play’s advantage. At once strangely intimate – as though the actors are performing just for you – and strangely alienating – you can never quite fully immerse and completely forget the moment that we’re living through.

I always dread the words ‘site-responsive theatre’ in blurbs because, depending on the site and the company, that either works really well or not at all. However in this case it meant that they used the quirks and charms of the video conferencing medium to make something really adventurous and completely of this moment.

If you’re one of the many people working from home and doing most of your meetings – and even socialising – via Zoom you’re probably familiar with Zoom backgrounds. (For that matter even if you aren’t I see that other video conferencing systems like Skype have started to introduce them too.) For the uninitiated, they are essentially a rough and ready back projection set up, which work better with a solid plain background behind you and really need you to sit still or you’ll sort of faze in and out of your background – to occasionally hilarious effect. The play makes really effective use of this feature. As the crux of the play is this smoke that some people can see and others cannot, whose meaning and presence shifts and changes with time and between characters, the play’s Greek chorus move in and out of their backdrop as they shift between perspectives and angles, emphasising the state of flux they exist in. The most effective use though is for the dance sequences where the dancers move in and out of their backgrounds in such a way that their backgrounds almost seem to take on a life of their own, as though they really are made of smoke that might swallow them up and smother them. It’s hard to imagine that any amount of clever tricks with lights and smoke machines on stage could have improved on that.

The company definitely use the medium to their advantage, pulling themselves into and out of focus, literally framing their performances to create different moods, and underline themes, illustrate intimacy and demonstrate increasing alienation.

Beyond the clever use of medium, the play itself is timely and compelling – the current pandemic only serving to make the issues all the more pressing – the characters are believably flawed and fallible, and their conflicts feel real to the point of touching nerves.

Over and over the play asks, ‘if your house was on fire, what would you do?’ Well our house – this planet – is most definitely on fire, so the question remains: what will we do?