Memory made music

Andrew Fuhrmann: Chamber Made Opera, Permission to Speak

Permission to Speak, Chamber Made Opera

Permission to Speak, Chamber Made Opera

Permission to Speak, Chamber Made Opera

The desire to tell our parents what family life was really like and to bear witness to the conditions of childhood is shared by many, so it’s no wonder that this inventive new documentary concert piece by composer Kate Neal and director-librettist Tamara Saulwick has been such a hit with Melbourne audiences.

Based on recorded interviews with more than 20 volunteers, Permission to Speak reflects on the difficulty of establishing meaningful communication across the generations, providing a ceremonial space for the public confession of feelings. It’s performed in the round by singers Georgie Darvidis, Edward Fairlie, Josh Kyle and Gian Slater, with a bold but simple set and lighting design by Bosco Shaw.

There are about a dozen scenes or movements, each one arranged around a different theme or mood or story. In one, Darvidis gives voice to the thoughts of an interviewee whose mother was a holy-roller-writhing-on-the-floor-style Pentecostal Christian. We hear memories of a childhood spent in dread of the coming Rapture. In another scene we hear a woman reflecting on the reasons why her mother was so rough when disciplining the kids. And in one collage-like section, we hear a barrage of brief descriptions of different fathers: the nuggetty one, the wiry one, the tall one, the peacock, the introvert and the one who is “a bit fucked.”

Edited excerpts from the actual interviews are played through speakers positioned at various points around the room. Some of these excerpts are quite long and some are only fragments. The performers, meanwhile, wear earpieces and deliver live audio-cued recitations of the same interviews. It’s a complicated combination, full of rapid cuts and transitions and overlaps. Sometimes it even sounds like the voices of the interviewees are coming directly from the audience, cutting off the performers, reasserting ownership of their stories.

Permission to Speak, Chamber Made Opera

Permission to Speak, Chamber Made Opera

Permission to Speak, Chamber Made Opera

And then we have Kate Neal’s composition for four voices, which is sometimes an accompaniment to the interview material and sometimes the main focus of our attention. Mostly performed a cappella, the work is rhythmically intricate, but also somehow naïve-sounding. (Is there a connection here between the complicated inner lives of children and their limited means of expression?) The score’s minimalist gestures, with short notes and a regular but insistent tempo, provide a necessary contrast to the hectic cut-and-paste clutter of the sound design, and its chant-like style suits the austerity of the staging.

The lyrics are selected by Tamara Saulwick from the interviews, and there’s something important about the fact that what is being said is also being sung. The permission which is granted in this show is also a kind of celebration; and, while there’s much that is sad or poignant in the remembered stories, the overall feeling is of airiness and giddy relief.

And there is something about the energy of the music and the urgency of the sound design which encourages more introspection than usual. The silence before the applause after the lights went down for the final time was one of the longest I’ve experienced. It was almost as if the audience had instinctively agreed to remain there in the dark for a minute, to think about parenthood and childhood and the ambiguous gift which lies between them.

Permission to Speak, composition, instrument design Kate Neal, concept, direction, libretto Tamara Saulwick, performers Georgie Darvidis, Edward Fairlie, Josh Kyle, Gian Slater, sound design Jethro Woodward, lighting design Bosco Shaw, costume design Marg Horwell; Arts House, North Melbourne, 23-27 Nov

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2016

© Andrew Fuhrmann; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

7 December 2016