“If you were to create an opera, what might that opera be?” Note how openly Australian company Chamber Made Opera phrases the invitation it extends to the people with whom it collaborates. No wonder Between Lands and Longings, created by artists Alexandra Zierle and Paul Carter, bore scant relation to operatic conventions, traditional or experimental. For music, there were a few crushed chords on a piano; the voice was always recorded, speaking. And yet, the piece communicated the very essence of opera, using language and sound and particularly imagery to overwhelm the senses.
The first image starts revealing itself while the audience is still waiting outside in the cold: a man on a balcony, head bent, neck in a noose, whose dangling rope he slowly winds up by turning, turning his body. Below him, a woman, dressed in black, dances a slow shuffle with a pair of men’s shoes, a tiny fire burning in each one. Inside, he holds a ticking clock, from the heart of which pour the sands of time; meanwhile she sits at the kitchen table, carving a white rat from an upturned bowl of frozen milk. Around her, at each place setting, is a small pile of pomegranate seeds, which she has crushed until they’ve bled, staining the white tablecloth.
Those seeds are Zierle and Carter’s clearest clue to a narrative embedded here: in Greek mythology, Persephone was stolen away to the Underworld by Hades, almost rescued by her mother Demeter, but forced to stay with him for six months of the year, a month for every pomegranate seed she had eaten in her time below ground. Tune in to the crackling voices that criss-cross the air like so many flight paths, and you realise the stories they are telling contain echoes or traces of Persephone’s: tales of living far from one’s homeland, of being uprooted by love, of never quite feeling a sense of belonging, no matter how many years it has been. One woman talks feelingly of her inability to sympathise with Australian humour: it’s English humour she understands. Every mention of separation from one’s children chips at the heart.
The venue itself feeds into the narrative: a four-storey house in the smartest part of Bristol, its décor is a perplexing mish-mash of English country cottage and global travels, clashing elements that you’re invited to nose into, but in doing so quickly become distracted from Zierle and Carter’s interventions. At one point, in the periphery of the performance, a woman can be heard talking heatedly about rats, and why humans can’t live with rats; a few minutes later, Zierle manages to extract the rat from its frozen womb. It’s a sign that everything is connected here – but also that every sense has to be alert, curious and, above all, lucky, to catch the material that will join the dots.
Gradually, the audience is beckoned from the warmth of the fire and the smell of oranges and Christmas spice downstairs, to a cold room upstairs, in which Zierle lies sprawled on the floor, in the classic pose of a murder victim, while Carter stands by the empty grate, a sack over his head, scraping through a mound of black burned toast until each piece crumbles from his hands. A television screen flickers with images of honey dripping from black thorns. The rat is in a nest now; Zierle crawls across the floor with the nest on her back; from a bowl of milk she extracts a knotted string of pearls. If the plan is to induce a sense of dislocation, Zierle and Carter succeed admirably. But that sounds flippant. In climbing the stairs we seem to have passed into a land of fairy-tale gothicism, strange, beautiful, but not quite as magical as the sight of Bristol through the window, a constellation of glittering street-lamps. Mystified by this final section, I find myself gazing out at the lights, thinking: there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…