Opera and physics: as a combination, what could possibly go wrong? As I briefly scanned one of the many programme notes generously supplied for the brave audience of Entanglement! An Entropic Tale, entitled “Quantum Mechanics, Shroedinger, The Uncertainty Principle and Wave-Particle Duality”, I felt a sense of mounting panic. However, as experiments go, Entanglement! wasn’t quite the unmitigated agony of a school physics lesson: I soon decided I definitely like electrons a lot more when they can sing. But did I learn any more about physics?
The general principle of attraction, important in physics, is of course a tool of opera too. As Electron (an energetic Amy Van Walsum) and Positron (an impressively poised Charlotte Sleet) chased each other around the universe, they could express their need to be together through both music and dance; often, dance seemed to be the more helpful in allowing us to understand their changing relationship. Baron Entropy (Roxanne Korda, also the librettist of the piece) was angry with them; they were trying to defy her, I think; and Gravity (an exceptionally well sung contribution from Sjiyu Zhang, whose floating, graceful soprano was the musical highlight of the evening) was – involved. I am afraid I got rather confused, and spent some considerable time thinking Gravity was perhaps the embodiment of a black hole. [Apologies, Gravity.] Singularity (Andrej Kushchinsky) was – also involved. How, or why, I cannot honestly tell you. For someone who only encounters physics these days as an occasional talk on astronomy at the Hay Festival, the plot was pretty much impossible to follow, assuming far more knowledge of physics than I could muster in order to navigate its various crises.
The difficulty in following the plot was compounded by a severe surtitles malfunction: projected onto a crinkled black curtain, which hungrily swallowed many a letter into its dark folds, the letters seemed only semi-illuminated, and were consequently often impossible to read. While diction was often good, composer Daniel Blanco Albert’s ambitious and often dissonant lines, accompanied by a small ensemble of seven instrumentalists, didn’t always make words easy to interpret: combine a lack of printed narrative synopsis with fuzzy, inadequate subtitles, challenging musical writing and a deeply unfamiliar subject matter, and any audience will soon be hurtling through a void of blankness instead of understanding, shot through with occasional flashes of familiarity as you catch the word “love” or “electron” or “positron” (always supposing positrons are familiar to you – which, to me, they are not, though they grew more so). The stage picture was well planned, with strong control of colour in the simple costumes, a stepladder (which probably signified something very clever, if only I knew more about physics) and a giant inflatable plastic pillow which Positron got inside, like slow-motion zorbing, at one point. I think she may have been protecting herself while crossing the universe. Why, I couldn’t tell you.
Infinite Opera have set themselves an ambitious task, and there is every chance there could ultimately be a successful melding of the worlds of opera and physics, and perhaps they are the right people to do it. There did to be some sort of adventure going on for the electron. But whatever they are communicating needs to be significantly simplified and clarified if the general, non-physics-graduate public are to make head or tail of it, let alone get anything out of it.