We don’t laugh at oddities of nature in circus sideshows any more: sadly, we haven’t grown out of the propensity, but it’s simply become all too easy (and, for some, lucrative) to do that on television. Any casual flick through the channels will show you society’s appetite for the freakish has not diminished, although it has become private: secret, silent spectating through a thousand anonymous glass screens, rather than the bustling queue for the small, darkened booth where the sideshow waits to be gazed at in return for coins. In the heyday of the sideshow, Lionel the Lion-Faced Man (a Polish man, whose real name was Stephan Bibrowski) toured Europe and America. He was celebrated for the fact that his body and face were covered in a mane of long, fine hair, which seems to have been real (and was probably due to a rare medical condition called hypertrichosis).
For their opera The Lion-Faced Man, inspired by Bibrowski, composer CN Lester and librettist Hel Gurney want to change the viewing relationship: “Instead of watching a captive performer, the audience is made captive themselves” (programme note). So, we file in to a small room in Kings Place, clutching ViewMasters which we are instructed to hold to our faces for the entirety of the performance. A soprano (Alison Wells) sings “a litany of characters – doctor, ringmaster, narrator, side-show spectators, the titular man himself” (ibid.), with a trio (Anna Kirkpatrick on violin, Timothy Thornton on piano, Edward Furse on cello). Throughout, we cannot look at the music being made: all we can see is an eerie old photo of Lionel inside the ViewMaster, which glows and fades very slightly as the light in the room changes, or if you tip your ViewMaster up and down. Alison Wells strides around the room, so that her various characters’ voices come from a few different angles.
It is certainly an intriguing performance concept. In practical terms, your arm does get tired holding the ViewMaster: I found myself resorting to alternating arms after a while. Made of fairly hefty Bakelite or melamine, ViewMasters are not the most comfortable of things to use: I kept on feeling I needed to adjust the angle at which it sat on my face. Still, they show a compressed image, which seems to be held at a slight distance down a dark tunnel, giving a nice sense of claustrophobia, and it’s surprisingly difficult to comply with the composer’s request to keep looking: we are so used to be able to watch music being made that resisting the temptation to look becomes an interesting game with yourself. However, this game can also distract you from the music. Rather than focusing more intently on the words, I found myself ironically less able to connect with the characters, distinguish words, or trace the changes from one personality to another: in the absence of facial expression and gesture, Hel Gurney’s words registered with me far less than they normally would. Only occasional phrases would briefly penetrate my consciousness amidst the general din. CN Lester’s spikily contemporary sound world, combined with Alison Wells’ often strident, harsh delivery, made for quite a tough listen at times. Still, it was an original and experimental work: and I have no doubt it’s good for an audience to be asked to contemplate the nature of their own gaze, once in a while.