As the home of the Contemporary Music Festival it’s highly appropriate that Huddersfield should be the northern port of call for an innovative new opera commissioned by Wales Millennium Centre and the Yorkshire Festival, writes Ron Simpson.
However, writes Ron Simpson, Opera for the Unknown Woman is barely recognisable as an opera, though it does have other admirable musical and design qualities.
Melanie Wilson, writer, director and co-composer (Katarina Glowicka shares composer credit), is nothing if not ambitious in her choice of themes: feminism, climate change, the destruction of the world. Unfortunately her plot, and the words in which she presents it, fail to live up to the challenge.
In 2316 Aphra is the last person left alive on the planet after the destruction of the environment has wiped out the human population. She is holed up in a weather station on high ground waiting for the end. However, summoned by a supernatural force, 10 women from around the world gather in 2016 to try to make the changes that will save Aphra.
This is all pretty unlikely, even for opera, but plenty of successful sci-fi stories start from as preposterous a premise – and it is an allegory or a polemic after all. The weakness is how the women set about the problem: by striding about purposefully and declaiming slogans about the need for change: “The current of change is now she.”
The 10 women are not characterised, though they speak their names and clearly represent many different nations. Thus there are no arias as such, though there are a few numbers of pastiche Eastern European or African folk song which work well enough. Most of the words are chanted rather than sung, though there is an extended (too extended?) final chorus.
Yet, if the “story” doesn’t hold the attention, other elements of the production do. The electronic music, sometimes boosted by live percussion, violin and cello played by cast members, is atmospheric and frequently dramatic in its impact. The designs (Fly Davis, with lighting by Kristina Hjelm and projections by Will Duke) give the production a significance its words lack. A sun-like disc proves to be Aphra in her weather station with changing back projections of world destruction and on either side of her rippling curtains give us the world in flames or the mysteries of space or the shimmering faces of the messengers who sent the rescue mission. Music, electronic effects and design are perfectly integrated.
The commitment of all the performers is equally impressive, with Kate Huggett suffering gracefully and without melodrama as Aphra and then excelling in her otherworldly Last Message to the Cosmos, her only aria and musically the most interesting number of the evening.
Opera for the Unknown Woman lasts for 80 minutes without an interval and runs at the Lawrence Batley Theatre until June 24.