United Kingdom Laura Bowler, The Blue Woman: Soloists, Actors, Instrumentalists, Matthew Fairclough (sound design), Jessica Cottis (music director), Jamie Man (conductor). Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London, 6.7.2022. (MB)
Director – Katie Mitchell
Designs – Lizzie Clachan
Assistant director – Emma Doherty
Lighting – James Farncombe
Video – Grant Gee
Dramaturgy – Ellie Horne
Woman 1 – Elaine Mitchener
Woman 2 – Lucy Schaufer
Woman 3 – Gweneth-Ann Rand
Woman 4 – Rosie Middleton
Cellos – Louise McMonagle, Su-a Lee, Tamaki Sugimoto, Clare O’Connell
Percussionist – Angela Wai-Nok Hui
Actor – Eve Ponsonby
Voice-over Artist – Eleanor Henderson
What is opera? It may seem self-indulgent to begin by repeating, rehearsing, even reheating that question. It both matters and does not. The Tête a Tête Festival has surely shown London opera-goers that opera can be pretty much anything one wants it to be. And that, I think, is the point here. One may think The Blue Woman as much a theatre piece or even an installation as an opera, but does it matter? In some cases, it might — or at least might be interesting. This collaboration between composer Laura Bowler, librettist Laura Lomas, director Katie Mitchell, and a fine creative team of live musicians and electronics makes the question seem somewhat beside the point.
Images and narration, words and music come together to represent — or something akin to representing — the aftermath of a rape. Post-dramatic in more than one sense, the fractures of memory, the circular tricks it plays are apparent. Time, which may or may not qualify as action, passes between unbearable, empty desolation of an abandoned south London flat — where it happened, where it is remembered, both, or a metaphor? — and beyond its horrible, familiar suffocation. Walking the streets leading from Clapham Junction to Clapham Common — uncanny enough for to see it pass the end of my old street in Battersea, rather more than uncanny for women in the wake of Sarah Everard’s murder — the woman’s psyche is rent asunder, awareness both heightened and dulled by rupture. Four outstanding women singers, shadowed neither sequentially nor arbitrarily by four outstanding female cellists, bring that home. Witnesses yet also participants, their commanding performance is clearly inspired by Mitchell’s guiding hand, Lomas’s evocative broken verse, and the sounds, transformations, and connections Bowler summons ‘live’ and otherwise.
Music, poetry, image, gesture present ‘the room I was raised in/Hard edges/Brick walls…’ and yet ‘In the splintered light/… I am dancing’. It is not hope, at least I do not think it is, but rather reality, beyond good and evil in an almost Nietzschean sense, although, for obvious reasons, this is not the place to pursue such philosophy. Perhaps I cannot help myself. I even began to wonder whether, as a man, I should be there, let alone comment. But then, it would surely be too easy a way out simply to absent oneself. Rape is not a ‘women’s problem’, but a men’s problem. There is a search going on here, for the woman she was before: if we cannot help, and surely I cannot, then at least we owe this woman an hour or so of our time. Observing and, ultimately, experiencing some fellow-feeling, engenders solidarity and maybe — I am not sure — defiance. I did not feel it was for me to define the piece’s terms. Song, speech, face, hands, solo, ensemble: things never quite come together, for they cannot, whilst remaining clearly, even fatally connected. There is no escape, least of all in escape.
If it were all the more real and hallucinatory for those of us who knew the streets concerned, how much more must it have been for those who knew something akin to what this women knew. At the close, I might have found myself asking once more what opera is (and is not), but I did not. Instead, I felt a degree of necessary numbness: not enough, yet not nothing. It was the artists’ achievement, not mine. Opera may not be witness, but bearing witness is something it does, or should do.