Get To Know: Silent Opera
Immersive theatre has been a huge part of the performing arts scene in London and beyond for the past few years, with Punchdrunk, You Me Bum Bum Train, and Kneehigh (among others) working to disintegrate the fourth wall and bring the audience directly into the action. Daisy Evans has taken the idea one step further, remoulding that most divisive of art forms – opera – into a contemporary immersive experience. As Creative Director of Silent Opera, Evans has reimagined Dido and Aeneas (2011), La Boheme (2012), L’Orfeo (2013), and Giovanni (2015) as interactive, English language performances, during which the audience listens to a pre-recorded orchestra through headphones. This month she brings Vixen, a contemporary reinterpretation of Leoš Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen to The Vaults Theatre. We caught up with her to find out more about Silent Opera, and Vixen, ahead of opening night.
What first drew you to the opera, and where did the concept of Silent Opera come from?
I was very musical from a young age, and grew up in a theatrical household. I discovered opera at university, and was driven to create a new audience for the art form that I found so rich and moving. I wanted to do what innovative theatre practitioners like Punchdrunk and Kneehigh were doing with theatre, but apply those techniques to opera. Immerse the audience and adapt the narrative to better reflect modern society. But the problem with opera is the ticking timeline of the orchestra. You can't pluck apart the words like you can with a straight text. So, I looked to the modern day obsession with the 'cloud' – the compulsion to plug in and listen. So, I thought, lets do that - pick up the orchestra, walk with the singers! Immersion without losing the full orchestral impact of the opera.
We like the idea of opening the form up to a younger audience. Would you say then that Silent Opera is for the newly initiated, rather than for the connoisseurs?
Silent Opera is always for people who want to see something new. No one else is presenting opera like this, so everyone will gain from it. We reimagine and retranslate the story, so people don't need prior knowledge to come and enjoy it. Connoisseurs will enjoy seeing classic material reinterpreted, but they certainly won't get the champagne and red velvet!
Once they’ve acclimatised to the lack of champagne, how have you found opera buffs react to the idea of a total reimagining of opera?
Split into two quite contrasting groups! Most people who make the journey underground are already looking for an alternative experience, so most enjoy our new take on classic work. But there are a few who sit on the more conservative side and wonder why we're 'tearing apart' Mozart or Janáček, missing the point of what Silent Opera aims to do. We even once had someone walk out of our 'Bohème' because there was no live orchestra!
They missed out! How does an audience member / the production itself benefit from listening to a pre-recorded music through headphones?
There are several benefits. Firstly, you'll get a perfect mix of the orchestra, live musicians and live singers - so wherever you are, the back or the front, you'll get perfect sound. It also means we can move the action far away - for example there are moments of action right at the other end of the tunnel, which without the headphones you might not hear properly. And most importantly, it allows you to move - which if a full orchestra of 75 had to move too, would be impossible!
What do you think happens between an actor and his/her audience when both parties are able to move so much more freely, and the distance between performer and spectator is closed?
An actor suddenly becomes a member of the tribe that is the audience in site specific work. They can sit amongst them and watch moments of action, and therefore the audience perspective is directly that of the actor. They can be subtle and extremely natural - which is something you don't often see in opera.
Do you feel that some operas lend themselves to contemporary reinterpretation more than others?
Absolutely. The operatic repertoire is rich and varied, and there are some that work brilliantly without electronic orchestra, and some that should be left to the big stage. For me, as a director, it usually comes down to the story itself, rather than the score. I'm drawn to psychological thrillers that grip the audience from beginning to end, and identifiable characters that we might see ourselves reflected in. Opera, I would argue more so than theatre, allows us to see beyond the mirror held up to society, and into the very core of our emotional being. Therefore tales of princes, dragons and giants might not work so well when you're standing a meter away from the performer...!
Is that why you chose to adapt The Cunning Little Vixen?
Janáček's piece is a wonderfully un-operatic tale about a man who captures a Vixen and takes her home to be tamed. Being a wild animal, she murders his chickens and runs away, and in the end... It's very simple, and very direct. I say 'un-operatic' because there's no extended, romantic death scene, there are no rambling arias and there are no repetitive chorus scenes. Further to this, I wanted to lift the barrier between the animal and the human kingdom, and see the issues at the core of this opera out in the open. If our heroine is a young girl, we see her mistreated and cast out by a predominantly male society. And that's an issue we don't really ever see in the public domain. She sings of feminism and female liberty, and repeatedly takes the blows of prejudice and humiliation. But she weathers the storm, and this is her story.
To what extent do you think The Vaults as a venue affects the show?
It's vital, as any site specific show is designed round the venue. Our story is of a young girl living on the streets, and here we're sitting on the fly-tipped sofas underneath the arch where she lives. It makes it immediate and relevant. I also want us to understand that these issues presented in the opera are happening in reality meters away from the very door of the Vault. Indeed, Crisis is our charity, and we will be collecting for them after the show.
Why should we go and see Vixen?
This is the most ambitious and complete Silent Opera production to date. It is the first time any opera company has brought together electronics, live musicians, live singers and technology to create a totally new experience. Not only do we innovate the experience, but we innovate the very opera itself. And it's in English, so there's nothing to stop your understanding of the whole piece!
See Vixen at The Vaults Theatre from 26th May to 10th June. Get your tickets here.