In ordinary circumstances opera can be one of the most difficult art forms to produce. The amount of organisation it needs is breathtaking. Highly trained singers, orchestra members and chorus are called for alongside the customary demands of the theatre. The Wedding Collective have taken all this one step further. Their current production, The Secret Consul, is a site-specific opera staged in Limehouse town hall, where the audience members become part of the performance, as they walk amongst the singers and journey through the building.
The idea is not a completely new one of course. The company’s musical director, Andrew Charity, is still fresh from his stunningly successful pub-opera version of La bohème which has run and run since it originated at the now closed Cock Tavern in Kilburn. Last year Punchdrunk, the dynamic site-specific company, produced an operatic version of The Duchess of Malfi. But what marks The Secret Consul out is, well, its secrecy and the playful manipulation of its spectators. Audiences remained unaware of the location until the production’s first night, and upon arrival were subjected to spot checks and labelling; there were whispers that the consul ‘may issue no papers today’.
As the audience enter the building they are ordered around by members of the chorus interspersed among the crowd. All this enforced secrecy and movement had quite a tiring effect – at times it even detracted from the event – but it did capture a sense of the unrelenting and remorseless nature of bureaucracy with which this opera is concerned.
The opera itself is a heavily cut version of the 1950 Pulitzer-prize winning opera The Consul by Gian Carlo Menotti. The story concerns the trials of Magda Sorel, who lives in an undisclosed totalitarian country. Her husband, a self-proclaimed radical, is arrested by the secret police. She is left with a hungry baby and elderly mother to look after. Her only hope is in contacting ‘The Consul’, whose democratic ideas should help save her family and herself. But the administrative maze into which she enters leads to tragedy.
The core cast, led but a faultless Lesya Aleksyeyeva, were accomplished, but at times the varying standards and voice types of the other cast members made for uncomfortable listening. The savage cuts to the original opera made the narrative difficult to follow and did not allow some of the performers reach their full potential. The vibrating power of bass-baritone Xiaoran Wang was cruelly denied much exposure, which is a shame as there was a real hypnotic quality so close to him as he performed. An opera in such intimate surroundings, where you can see the most subtle of details, calls for extreme precision in direction. Unfortunately, some of the key moments were undermined because enough care had not been taken in this area; a secret policemen jumping from a cupboard and brandishing his Oyster card as ID somewhat undermines the intended effect.
But despite these problems the production has a certain power. Modern democracy’s response to conflict is increasingly under scrutiny, which makes the issues all the more pertinent. An awful lot of contemporary productions are exploring Kafkaesque scenarios at the moment; The Secret Consul is the perfect example of this. And more importantly, it does so in a genuinely exciting and imaginative way.