“She knew she could not be a star in death; to be a star was to be alive and seen floating on a sea of people… and the warmth of their camera flashbulbs… with the cameras snapping like crocodiles.”
Tosca, Violetta, Jade Goody… She doesn’t immediately strike you as the most likely of classic opera heroines. Yet the playwright Afsaneh Gray saw an operatic element in Jade Goody – specifically, in a magazine image of the jaundiced, bald, post-chemo-Jade in her wedding dress, shortly before her death – and has collaborated with the composer Erick Flores to create a short opera, based on and yet “not the story of” her life, which is surprisingly tender, thought-provoking and strong. And the singing is wonderful.
It is a pared-down piece. There are only four singers: the girls One, Two, and Three, who by turns portray Jade (who is never actually named) or members of the public reacting to Jade, and the Narrator, a tenor. The instruments required are also fairly few. But the tone, texture and range of sounds which Flores achieves with this handful of (admittedly excellent) artists makes you wonder what on earth he could do with a full orchestra. The music was sculptural and sinuous, underpinned by the odd rattle, snap or even camera flash. Moments of stress, fear and disorientation were built with almost manic intensity. In its final moments, the sounds seemed to curl up and unravel like a page of a glossy magazine thrown on a fire. The superbly accurate singing of Sarah Minns, Norah King and Cathy Bell did a difficult score magnificent justice, while the sonorous tones of David Hansford provided the perfect foil to their highest notes. The musicians all deserve the highest praise.
Gray’s libretto is surprisingly moving – crucially, without being mawkish. I wasn’t convinced I would be moved; I had always taken a rather dim view (in every sense) of Jade Goody, dismissing her antics and ignoring her news stories, but for the first time, I had a chance to contemplate what misery she had come from, how that background might (not) prepare one for the world, and the emptiness in which she eventually floundered. Above all, it is beautifully written, using simple, almost fairytale language to tell the story of a “poor little girl… who walked up to the door and knocked”. Gray encapsulates our two-faced approach to Jade perfectly in the moment when One, Two and Three (as office workers giggling over magazines) describe her father’s death “of an overdose, in a KFC”. The story is both hilariously funny and horrifyingly sad. By presenting the workers’ hilarity, but intermingling it with the terror and despair of a small girl now left to look after her drug addict mother alone, which flashes in and out of the singers’ consciousness, Gray makes a powerful – indeed, brutal – point about the selfishness implicit in the modern media circus. We want to read these stories for fun: but living through them must, in fact, be hell. The idea of the fiery pit versus the stars in the sky is introduced early in the opera, with Jade fixated on the stars, but as she goes on, she seems to oscillate between the two until, finally, the distinction between them becomes almost irrelevant, as her stardom becomes a kind of hell in itself. And yet her obsession with stardom persists: “She knew she could not be a star in death; to be a star was to be alive and seen floating on a sea of people… and the warmth of their camera flashbulbs… with the cameras snapping like crocodiles.”
and the Crowd (wept) is a poignant farewell to a very sad, troubled life which sought happiness in a vacuum of other people’s making – and a caustic remonstrance against the society which pushed Jade Goody into its exploitative circus. The delicate libretto by Afsaneh Gray is a delight; Erick Flores‘ music is sculptural and sinuous. This piece may divide, but it will fascinate. And the singing is a treat. Go see.
Tête à Tête Opera Festival
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith