Not many operas credit their Neural Network Programming: but ‘i’ – The Opera, though recognisably and confidently an opera, thanks Janelle Shane and Dr Amita Kapoor of the University of California, San Diego, for that contribution. The opera tells of the creation of an android girl, a birthday present for a spoilt Princess in a mystical castle in the sky; in the process of creating her, and teaching her to speak, the disarmingly ingenuous Inventor (engaging stage natural Benjamin Kane) falls hopelessly in love with his glittering, blonde Android (a smoothly controlled Anna Palmer). Shane and Kapoor together supplied the Android’s words, which they generated by feeding an artificial neural network with Indian epics and Shakespeare’s sonnets: on stage, the Inventor adds three books to the Android’s backpack to ‘give’ her speech (recalling the three volumes – Plutarch, Milton and Goethe – found by Frankenstein’s monster in his adolescent exile in the forest). As the Android hesitantly begins to move from gibberish into hilariously randomised words, the Inventor marvels, like a man on a first date trying to find common ground, “You have all my favourite words from all my favourite books.” Like Pygmalion seen through a Lewis Carroll lens, ‘i’ deconstructs whether love is down to what we find in another, or what we seek to notice and nurture, in a supremely creative production, at once exhilaratingly, wildly original and immaculately stylised.
Its static opening, with the Jester (Suzie Purkis) lying on the floor gurgling, until the gurgling evolves into wordless song, from which words slowly emerge, while the disconcerting first soundscape includes air being sucked backwards through a trumpet, doesn’t immediately endear the piece. However, like the silence on a beach as waves gather backwards to form a tsunami, this flat beginning just magnifies the explosion of originality that follows as ‘i’ takes imaginative flight, transporting us (with the aid of simple, clean 3D animation by Maurice Andresen, projected on a large screen at the back of the stage) through the clouds into the magical, monochrome castle. Music Director Daniel Galbreath presides over a small band of Aaron Diaz on trumpet, Sarah Farmer on violin, and Daniel Galbreath and Danyal Dhondy both playing violas, and the ambitious, dramatic score soon settles compellingly in the ear. Designed as the second of a trio of operas, ‘i’ is part of a larger project by The Waste Paper Opera Company entitled God’s Funeral & a Nightingale, in which God and a jester bet on whether the Jester can tell the saddest story in the universe (last year’s The Remarkable Rocket was the first instalment – click here to see it): when the project is completed, and if all three pieces can be performed in one evening, the framing device will add gravity to the whole, but currently it just adds darkly contrasting edges to the story it contains, while also (in the person of the Jester) recalling opera’s historic bonds with Commedia dell’Arte.
Klara Kofen’s libretto sparkles with an insouciant joy of language which shuttles from bald directness – “You love me. That is nice. Happy birthday to me.” – to a Dylan Thomas open horizon of imagery: “Oh, my little buttery mango! …Biscuit!” being just some of the myriad, eclectic terms of endearment cried by the devoted Queen (a perfectly poised and deliciously clear Caroline Kennedy) and King (expressively dramatic baritone Przemyslaw Baranek) to their churlish Princess, played with glorious grumpiness by countertenor Rodrigo Sosa Dal Pozzo, capturing the Princess’ utter self-absorption and producing plenty of consequent black humour with his supple, well-supported voice. Innovatively, Kofen and composer James Oldham integrate speech and song from one phrase to another: so, when the Princess sings, at length, in a fabulous musical tantrum, “I… AM… NOT… HAPPY!”, the instrumentalists break off their playing and shout back, as one, “Why?”, in ordinary speech. Naturally humourous, these flicks from song to speech (and back) serve to highlight the mannered surrealism of the work as a whole: more interestingly, they do not puncture our suspension of disbelief, but rather enlarge it. It’s a testament to the skill of all the performers involved that this worked at all; many a singspiel founders on such switches, but ‘i’ calmly sustains speech, pure opera singing (from the Royals) and popular song (from the Inventor and his Android), and all three strands form a coherent whole, their delivery equally surreal and sincere across the board.
Both Oldham and Kofen jointly direct, while Kofen also designs, and the result is a tightly focused production which serves its adventurous narrative with powerful clarity. In keeping with the company name, the extraordinary costumes of the Royal court (designed and constructed by Klara Kofen and Triin Kolmkant) are largely made of paper, embellished with curling plastic, bubble wrap, and giant geometric hats, while hands are encased in surgical gloves, with aggressively monochrome makeup (whited faces, black lipstick and huge, expressive eyes all round). The Inventor, in a customised boiler suit, “codes” his Android by furiously “typing” on an abacus; the Android picks up his heart (stored for safekeeping in a glass jar) and holds it precariously before her, a visual allegory of the risk of love. The increasing gulf between the childish, selfish world of the Princess, and the growing love of the Inventor for the awakening humanity of the Android, becomes ever more marked, while the Android’s attempts at speech are interrupted by her own comic, or poignant glitches: “At last, love is pure and I try… Human swan!”
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed at RADA on Friday 11 August 2017