Brighton Festival 2011
Following the emotional and artistic turmoil of a group of singers as they rehearse a new choral work, this highly physical ‘opera for actors’ from Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes may be written entirely in a made-up language. But combined with the comedy of tension and rivalry and some gorgeous live music, that only makes it more accessible.
Anyone who’s ever prepared for a performance in front of an audience would have found something to connect with in El Gallo, the second musical theatre piece from Mexico’s Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes to receive its UK premiere as part of the Brighton Festival. And though its form is highly experimental – a thoroughly modern opera performed in a made-up language – it taps into our popular, X-Factor fostered taste for seeing the rehearsal process alongside the performance, the tears and tantrums in tandem with the resulting artistic triumph.
Accompanied in Brighton by the pretty exquisite playing of the Ligeti and Hillman String Quartets, the piece follows a group of singers, two men and three women, as they try to mount a difficult new choral work for performance. We see their first auditions with the composer/director, each singer guarding their notes jealously as they practice to themselves, then thrusting forward to the piano with the score for their particular party piece. And we even get the climactic concert, performed in front of the Corn Exchange curtain after it has closed on the ‘main’ show.
What happens in between tips surreally between comedy and tragedy as nerves, creative tensions and professional rivalries run amok. The singers’ initially strident notes soon fade to musical whimpers in the face of the composer/director’s brusque perfectionism. At one point they all lie prostrate on the floor or slump across their seats, exhausted. And come the end of the rehearsal process the stress and artistic strain seems to have driven them native – while the composer/director sits at the back with his head in his hands, they scream, stomp about and strip down to their underwear. One singer has a breakdown involving doing the splits with a mop. And there’s even a sequence involving a whole other new performance genre – orchestra-accompanied wrestling.
All this is communicated, save for an early rendition of Gershwin’s Summertime, without a word of existing language: the cajoling, fretting, arguing, teasing, gossiping and breaking down is all rendered in gobbledygook. The idea, mutually arrived at by director Claudio Valdés Kuri and Mexico-based British composer Paul Barker, was to create an opera that could tour internationally without translation. And I definitely found it liberating not having to follow surtitles, programme notes or imperfect diction to grasp the gist of the story. But the made-up language also left room for a pleasing degree of ambiguity about the perimeters of the performance within the performance – at times I wasn’t quite sure where the choral work that was being rehearsed ended and the play began.
El Gallo isn’t the only piece successfully experimenting with the idea of sung-theatre – Theatre Ad Infinitum have scored one of the hits of the Brighton Festival Fringe with The Big Smoke, a one-woman monologue performed a cappella, while Polish company Song of the Goat Theatre recently toured a song-cycle staging of Macbeth. But Teatro de Ciertos Habitantes, a company whose members include a dancer and a classical horse rider as well as a professional soprano, are really exploring the potential for using the human voice in specifically physical theatre. As the singers strive to meet the work’s demands on their voices, to strike the right notes, tones and timbres, they gesture absurdly with their arms, like puppeteers trying to manipulate literal vocal chords. Pulled up physically from within, the music we hear here, taking in everything from classical opera to Middle Eastern folk song, was often beautiful and sometimes instinctive but never without a whole lot of muscle.