Thought Provoking Musical Theatre in Care Home Setting

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Orlando Gough, Imago: Soloists, Imago chorus and Aurora Orchestra / Nicholas Collon (conductor), Glyndebourne Opera House, East Sussex, 7.3.2013. (JPr)
Elizabeth: Jean Rigby,
Lisette:  Joanna Songi,
Andy: Daniel Norman,
Gulliver:  Adam Gilbert,
Hip Vicar:  George Ikediashi
Stella: Thomasin Trevise

Libretto: Stephen Plaice
Director: Susannah Waters
Sets: Es Devlin and Bronia Housman
Lighting: Paul Pyant
Videographer: Finn Ross

Care home; photo credit:Robert Workman
Care home; photo credit:Robert Workman

What does the term ‘Community Opera’ conjure up in your mind? I’m not certain what I was expecting from Glyndebourne Education that has been commissioning operas involving the participation of the community and young people since 1990. This was my first time and never in my wildest dreams did I expect such a fascinating thought-provoking evening of ‘musical theatre’ that should now have a life of its own long after these première performances.

‘Having a life of its own’ is a not-too-subtle lead into the actual premise of Stephen Plaice’s libretto that focusses on the elderly Elizabeth, a resident of a care home, who is introduced by her occupational therapist, Andy, who is full of good intentions, to a computer programme that – by means of a visor – allows her to create an avatar – the imago. This is an idealised version of her younger self, through which she can relive her youth as an 18-year-old. She calls her Lisette and in this guise Elizabeth roams through various montages in a virtual world of cyber-grooming (though this is not over-empathised), gambling, mass pro-democracy protest and romance. Lisette falls in love with Gulliver – whose ‘host’ is actually her therapist’s 15-year-old son. There are therefore some apposite associations made here to teenagers who, as well as many adults, are addicted to computer games and often develop relationships – for good or ill – more online than in person in the real world.

Sometimes Elizabeth finds her alter ego’s activity consoling but other times is disturbed by Lisette’s impulsive and rather-irrational behaviour. As Elizabeth reaches the end of her life she loses control of her digital creation, the lines become blurred between what is real and what is imagined. Elizabeth becomes one with Lisette and both die. The deaths also help reconcile the therapist’s rather dysfunctional family during the work’s extremely poignant denouement. The death scene is sensitively and beautifully handled, is neither morbid nor mawkish.

At heart here, there is a wryly observed, topical, musical satire on family life, escapist entertainment and society’s treatment of those reaching the ends of their life. Pop music and world music sit confidently side-by-side in Orlando Gough’s inventive, colourful, woodwind-led score that is a true mash up of various musical influences. It is enthusiastically tackled by the Aurora Orchestra enhanced by young student instrumentalists and an energetic and highly-committed amateur chorus of 68 under the confident conducting of Nicholas Collon. There is some repetition that is a little wearying in Act I, but Act II is much the better half and grabs the audience’s attention from its Last Chance Casino opening until Elizabeth’s (and Lisette’s) death.

Truth-be-told Susannah Walters staging gives us an ‘Occupy’ protest scene (where Gulliver is apparently shot dead but soon recovers because nothing is ‘real’) that is lifted straight out of the current arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. But to balance this there is then one of the best pieces of musical theatre I expect to ever see – and so something that will live long in my memory – the ‘A capella Wedding’. Here the well-rehearsed, very talented and enthusiastic chorus are left mostly to their own devices, singing along with a luxuriantly-robed, soul-singing preacher (the hugely charismatic George Ikediashi’s ‘Hip Vicar’) who presides over the marriage between Lisette and Gulliver.

Hip-Vicar, George Ikediashi; photo credit: Robert Workman
Hip-Vicar, George Ikediashi; photo credit: Robert Workman

The curtain rises on a three-tier, proscenium high, set representing the bedrooms of a care home and it is already clear that the production values are astonishingly high. Sadly for a number of reasons I have recently visited several care homes that aim to help dementia sufferers and one way they do this is to surround them with the comfort of the past. Indeed Imago begins with the chorus spouting many old slogans such as ‘You are never alone with a Strand’ and ‘I could have been a contender’ and this allows us to engage with the ‘reality’ of that world we are seeing. Es Devlin’s and Bronia Housman’s contemporary, frequently brightly coloured, designs are matched by Paul Pyant’s lighting that embraces inventive videography from Finn Ross to stunning effect to often allow the virtual and real worlds to subtly merge from time-to-time. Overall with its compelling intermingling themes, it is atmospheric and mesmeric in a way I never expected it to be before I sat down in the Glyndebourne Theatre.

Jean Rigby brought immense dignity to Elizabeth, singing with great vocal depth and conviction. Joanna Songi was a bright-sounding Lisette and Adam Gilbert was outstanding as Gulliver, singing with a totally secure, well-balanced voice. Daniel Norman portrayed Andy as weak and hen-pecked by Thomasin Trevise’s Stella at home though well-meaning at work – and was Ade Edmondson’s doppelganger. The cast had no weak link but diction might have been clearer so surtitles might have helped the audience follow the libretto better.

If an opera is a dramatic work for singers and instrumentalist then Imago is an opera. But because for some opera has the ‘highbrow’ connotation that means they believe they cannot relate to it, Imago would be best to describe itself as something else – ‘a twenty-first century musical extravaganza’ perhaps? Naturally, it still needs a bit of work but as it is so very good already it deserves to live on. I note Scottish Opera’s involvement in the commissioning of Imago and perhaps they will be reviving it, sooner rather than later – and if not them, then I hope someone else does.

Jim Pritchard

For more about forthcoming opera at Glyndebourne visit

Read an interview with Glyndebourne’s director, David Pickard by Margarida Mota-Bull.