Don’t sleep now: Black Sand at Tête à Tête

What began as an operetta at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama has now developed into a full opera for the Tête à Tête opera festival at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith. Black Sand, with music by Na’ama Zisser and words by Samantha Newton, is about insomnia, insanity, love and sleep – and the Sandman. And it’s really rather creepy.


Black Sand describes itself as a “horror opera”. I can think of few other operas which might legitimately be described as horror: some are thrillers, many are full of violence and darkness, but for sheer downright creepiness the only other opera I have seen which compares to Black Sand is Benjamin Britten’s ghostly The Turn of the Screw. For Black Sand, based on E.T.A. Hoffman‘s The Sandman, is magnificently eerie, as stories about childhood tragedy often are. It’s definitely, however, a grown-up horror story.

The story has been translated from late 18th-Century Germany to 1950s America – perhaps via The Chordettes’ pretty lovesong? – and while librettist Samantha Newton and director Stuart Baker’s version the plot has been significantly simplified from Hoffman’s bewildering, psychedelic original, the main aspects remain clear: Nathanael’s obsessive fear, stemming from a terrifying childhood experience, and the strangely doll-like nature of his fantasy girl, Olympia (Caroline Kennedy). The Sandman (Nicholas Dwyer), complete with devastating good looks and a filmstar smile, haunts Nathanael’s dreams, and as those dreams become more vivid and his “real” life becomes more hopeless, it becomes harder and harder to know what is real and what is dreamt. The Sandman is assisted by a trio which variously seem to be enchanted toys, assistant demons, and even figments of Nathanael’s imagination as he descends further and further into madness in his desperate attempt to stay sane. The episodic, dreamlike structure of the plot disorientates us too, until we also, finally, long to know whether he is really asleep – or awake, as the dreams descend further and further into nightmare.

Na’ama Zisser’s score, conducted by Jack Smith, is full of sampled and scratched sounds, with a (brilliant) DJ on stage as well as a small group of musicians playing strings, percussion and piano. The ticking sounds of clocks, dripping taps and heartbeats pulsate in volume and intensity to become, at times, truly disturbing. The balance and interplay of live and electronic sound is beautifully handled: rather than contrasting, each enhances the other.

Over this insomniac soundscape, Nathanel’s countertenor soars, and the Sandman’s bass voice rumbles – one hopeful, the other powerful – as they tussle for control over his life. The trio (two sopranos and a tenor, sung by Alexandra Mathew, Rose Stachniewska and Oliver Marshall) sing a dazzling array of sounds which, for sheer vocal inventiveness, must be heard to be believed (I particularly loved their tiny, but fabulous, telephone line trio). In another gorgeous moment, the musicality of a yawn is explored with playful dexterity by Nathanael (James Hall). The interspersed sounds of the “real world” (doorbells, applause, radio adverts) become surreal: just as they do when heard in those few final moments before falling asleep, when even the most ordinary noise can sound nonsensical, as the mind disengages from the pressures of everyday.

Hoffman’s original story playfully asks us to judge his hero: to decide whether his madness is external truth, or internal obsession. “If there is a dark power, which with such enmity and treachery lays a thread within us, by which it holds us fast, and draws us along a path of peril and destruction, which we should not otherwise have trod; if, I say, there is such a power, it must form itself within us, or from ourselves; indeed, become identical with ourselves, for it is only in this condition that we can believe in it, and grant it the room which it requires, to accomplish its secret work.” Nathanael, in Black Sand, is far more endearing: we are asked not so much to judge him as to enter into madness with him, to feel for him and ultimately to love him, messy bedroom, blue pyjamas and all. You feel he is stuck forever in that seven-year-old moment when his parents died; and much of the power of the Sandman comes from his childlike desire to trust to the present. The problem, however, is that the present is – so often – merely in his (or the Sandman’s) imagination… or creation.

Not for the faint-hearted, and definitely not for children: but for anyone who has now got past the fact that they used to be afraid of the dark (or the Sandman), it’s an exhilarating and rewarding journey.  And, yes, there is a proper pillowfight.

Read my review on One Stop Arts here

Tête à Tête Opera Festival

Riverside Studios, Hammersmith