Music, News, Performing arts, Reviews

Some things leave you speechless

Perth Festival review: Cat Hope, Speechless ⋅
Sunset Heritage Precinct, February 28 ⋅
Review by Laura Biemmi ⋅

So often, words fail us. The tragedies of our time can leave us stricken, without words, struggling to comprehend the state-sanctioned monstrosities before us. Australian society has a lot to answer for, points out Cat Hope in the program notes for her new opera, Speechless. She highlights the Australian government’s inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, its lack of respect for our Indigenous communities, and its inability to recognise the plight of women in Australia, lamenting that ‘these are groups who, as a result of being spoken for by others, are left without a voice.’

Hope’s response to these crises that plague our nation was to create an opera which received its premiere at the Perth Festival this week.

Visually, Speechless was inescapably captivating. The audience were placed in curved rows around the oval performance space, giving the uncomfortable impression of spectatorship, as if watching a football game. Thick strips of fabric dangling from the ceiling, reminiscent of bar-graphs detailing horrific statistics, were pulled down and tightly wrapped around the principal performers, the set itself becoming an oppressive actor on stage. Matthew Adey’s lighting design included pole-like lights suspended from the ceiling to just above the floor, acting as both structural guideposts for the actions of the performers and as physical accompaniments to the Australian Bass Orchestra. In one particularly striking display in the third act, the red lights overhead drifted glacially from the back of the space near the orchestra, to the front of the room, menacing in its hue and bathing all in its light.

Four soloists stand on chairs with a group of black clothed chorus members clustered around them
The chorus turn their attention to the wordless singing of the soloistss Photo Frances Anrijich

Stripped of their words, the performers onstage connected with their audience in a more visceral manner. Sage Pbbbt was compelling in her guttural cries and wordless gasps; Karina Utomo’s aria of screams was deeply moving; the percussive vocalisations of Caitlin Cassidy were equally virtuosic and unearthly in their execution, and the mourning that pervaded the beauty of Judith Dodsworth’s voice was only enhanced by the lack of text. Such vocalisations were deeply moving, and were felt on a level I had never experienced before in a concert setting. The choir, made up of members from five separate community choirs, were effective in their role as ‘citizen’s commentary’, drifting through the space and connecting (or not) with the principal performers. However, I felt there was space in the opera for the choir to have a more prominent role as the members of Australian society. Some ‘numbers’ involving the principal performers began to feel familiar towards the end of the work.

Much like the performers onstage, the Australian Bass Orchestra communicated with their listeners in a more bodily fashion. The notes from the bass orchestra–consisting of low winds, brass, strings, electronics and percussion–could be felt reverberating through the feet of the audience, settling uncomfortably in the stomach. However, such a human, bodily effect was juxtaposed harshly with moments of metallic, mechanical rage, particularly in one intense moment scored for ‘rock band’ and strobe lighting. This clash between bodily and mechanical elements served to remind audiences of the inter-relatedness of the two; the horrors of our time might be systemic and seemingly untouchable, but they are essentially man-made.

Aaron Wyatt conducts the Australian Bass Orchestra. Photo Toni Wilkinson

Such bodily reactions to Speechless, are important. Hope drew inspiration for the opera from the 2014 Human Rights Commission Report The Forgotten Children: National Enquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. Reports such as these filled with clinical figures of statistics and descriptions of conditions have not been effective at ending our current stance on asylum seekers, nor on any social issue plaguing Australia. Connecting on a level that surpasses pure intellect might be the next best option. Speechless was overwhelming; an experience so forcefully immersive, it was impossible to ignore. And that’s exactly what Australian society needs to experience.

Speechless continues until March 3.

Picture top: Karina Utomo’s aria of screams. Photo Toni Wilkinson

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Features, News, Opera, Perth Festival

Composer gives speech for the voiceless

Award-winning composer Cat Hope will give a voice to the silenced when she returns to Perth to present the annual Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address on Thursday. Hope is currently based in Melbourne where she is head of the Sir Zelman Cowan School of Music at Monash University. The visit will be the first of several Hope will make to her hometown in the coming months.

Glanville-Hicks had a stellar international career and the address named in her honour provides a platform to challenge the status quo and raise issues of importance in new music. Hope is a fitting choice for the address with industry experience as a performer, curator, academic and advocate for gender equality.

Speaking on the phone from Melbourne she outlined her plans to use the Glanville-Hicks address to discuss gender inequality in the music industry.

“Some in the industry believe that gender equality is not an issue but there is now evidence to confirm women and non-binary individuals do not experience the same access to opportunities as men working as music creators. I’ll present this data and also suggestions on how we can develop change.”

Composer Cat Hope. Photo supplied

Hope’s advocacy for women and non-binary artists was galvanised by observing the treatment of women in public life.

“Women like Julia Gillard, Gillian Triggs – women just doing their job – were attacked for reasons that had nothing to do with their work. I realised that Australians operate within a systemic hierarchical structure and the arts are included in that, even though we may think we are more collaborative or left-leaning. We need to change the way we think, talk about and commission compositions across the full range of society, from individuals at a ground level to government policies at a federal level.”

In a tangible demonstration of putting change into action, Hope’s address will include the performance of a new work commissioned from artists she would not normally work with. Melbourne metal singer Karina Utomo will perform a composition for voice and electronics created collaboratively by Hope and Polish-Australian composer Dobromila Jaskot.

Utomo will also be starring in Hope’s first opera Speechless, to be premiered in February as part of the Perth Festival. In Speechless Hope’s concern for issues of social justice take on a large scale, as befits a work in the genre of opera which historically often drew on the issues of the time. The score is derived from drawings and graphics extracted from the 2014 Human Rights Commission report, The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention.

“Speechless is my personal response to Australia’s refugee crisis. When it first happened I was devastated and felt so helpless. I wanted to use music to activate the issue.”

The opera retains the conventional structure of arias, recitative accompanied by orchestra but Hope expands the horizon of opera according to her experimental practice and philosophy of inclusivity.

Utomo will perform alongside experimental vocalist Sage Pbbbt, Iranian-born singer Tara Tiba, opera singer Judith Dodsworth and a combined community choir of 30 voices. The opera has no libretto, instead the four soloists and choir will sing wordlessly (think Ennio Morricone mixed with experimental singer Cathy Berberian) in a fitting homage to people whose voices are rendered silent through political means. Instead the narrative will unfold through the music which will be performed by the Australian Bass Orchestra, an ensemble of low pitched instruments such as cellos, double basses, bass guitars, bass winds and brass, bass drums and electronics.

Hope composes her music using graphic notation and the score for Speechless is derived from the format of The Forgotten Children report. The singers and musicians follow specific colours and literally ‘read’ the report, following the up or downward trajectory of graphs, children’s drawings and photos.

The process may be unusual and technical, but Hope says the experience for audiences will be exhilarating.

“People will be challenged but it is ultimately rewarding. We’ve heard a lot of words and seen a lot of images and I think Australians are suffering from compassion fatigue. I hope the opera might give people a different way to grapple with the issue.”

Perth audiences can have a preview of Hope’s compositional style performed by Utomo at the Peggy Glanville-Hicks address on Thursday night. Hope will also be performing with her award-winning ensemble Decibel on Monday night at the Subiaco Arts Centre. Since founding in 2009 the six-piece electro-acoustic ensemble has become something of an Australian institution, renowned for their pioneering work with graphic notation and their commitment to commissioning Australian composers. The Decibel concert explores the vinyl record as a sound source, musical instrument and score.

The Peggy Glanville-Hicks Address is November 29. Decibel’s Revolution concert is December 3. Speechless will run February 26 until March 3.

Picture top: singer Karina Utomo. Photo: Paul Tadday.

 

 

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Speechless
Calendar, Music, Opera, Performing arts, Perth Festival

Music: Speechless

26 Feb – 3 Mar @ Sunset Heritage Precinct ·
Presented by Cat Hope & Tura New Music ·

Imagine a world where you have no voice. That is the world for many in contemporary Australia who are silenced legally, politically or culturally.

Speechless – a powerful new opera by award-winning composer Cat Hope – is a personal response to the 2014 Human Rights Commission report ‘The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention’. Through a vocal language beyond words, Speechless is a channel for Hope to come to terms with the terrible things she sees perpetrated in her name by those in positions of power.

Speechless features one of Australia’s finest interpreters of contemporary vocal repertoire Judith Dodsworth, lead singer of the Australian heavy metal powerhouse High Tension Karina Utomo, one of Australia’s most distinctive voices in Iranian-born Tara Tiba, West Australian experimental vocalist Sage Pbbbt and award-winning visual artist and post-punk drummer Tina Havelock Stevens with a combined community choir of 30 voices, the Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel new music ensemble.

While following the structure of conventional opera, Speechless’ unique score is derived from drawings and graphics extracted from the Report and performed using networked iPads. This World Premiere season is designed specifically for the new Sunset Heritage Arts Precinct.

Immerse yourself in a compelling, courageous and visceral sonic world.

A Perth Festival Co-Commission
Produced by Tura New Music

More info:
www.perthfestival.com.au/event/speechless

Pictured: Karina Utomom, credit: Paul Tadday

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