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01 Sep 2019

Scoring a Century: British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre

‘It is well known that Eisler was a master of the art of self-contradiction, using non-sequitur, change of tack and playing devil’s advocate in a brilliantly ironic way in an attempt to look at a problem from every angle, to expose it fully to the gaze of his interlocutor. For an ordinary person to take part in this, let alone keep up with the pace and fully appreciate the wide range of references, which his enormous reading threw out, was wonderfully stimulating, and exhausting.’

Scoring the Century: British Youth Opera at the Peacock Theatre

A review by Claire Seymour


So wrote David Blake in an essay, ‘Recollections’, published in 1995 in Hanns Eisler: A Miscellany, of which Blake was editor. The same might be said of Scoring A Century, a ‘comic opera’ in twenty ‘panels’, in which Blake and his librettist Keith Warner set out to trace one hundred years of the changing cultural, musical, political and economic landscape by charting the 20th-century progress of Mr and Mrs Jedermann, a pair of song-and-dance Everymen, as they stumble their way through the significant events and epochs of the 20th century. The Jedermanns - ageless, guileless and, one might say, clueless - are intellectual and ideological tabula rasas: clean slates upon which others can etch their own beliefs, systems, hypocrisies and muddles … though the scratches don’t make deep in-roads - the Jedermanns grow more experienced but not necessarily any the wiser.

Scoring a Century was a millennial project. After some scenes were workshopped by the University of York Music Department in November 1999, the premiere of the complete work was planned for Portland, Oregon. Ironically, a work which set out to define the 20th century was derailed by an event which will surely be seen as one of the defining moments of the following century: the 9/11 terrorist attack. The planned premiere was withdrawn and, following a subsequent cancellation in Dublin, it was a decade before Scoring a Century received its first full performance, in the Crescent Theatre at the Birmingham Conservatoire in March 2010, directed by Warner and conducted by Lionel Friend, then conductor-in-residence at the Conservatoire.

With a cast of twenty-plus performing over fifty named roles and ensemble-groups of gangsters, jury members, political protesters, secret agents and dock workers, Scoring a Century is an ideal work for a large collective of young singers to exercise their talents and demonstrate their range, and thus an apt choice for one of British Youth Opera’s 2019 summer productions at the Peacock Theatre. Warner and Friend have teamed up again and they’ve clearly put the cast through their paces: the results of the obvious hard work are, as Blake said of Eisler, both ‘stimulating’ and somewhat ‘exhausting’!

If the cast work hard, then Scoring a Century also makes considerable intellectual, imaginative and aural demands on its audience. Warner has described the opera as “a low entertainment for high brows, or vice versa”, but this clear-cut opposition is in fact under-cut by the complexity and intricacy of the conception. The sequence of tableaux burst with hyperactive allusiveness and detail, but sometimes progress with a disjointed leisureliness. The transitions are not always smooth, and I struggled at times to both rapidly absorb a wealth of cultural references and maintain an attentive engagement as the chronological arc unfolded. The challenge for Warner and Blake is to allow time for us to take in what’s happening in the moment and to keep the flow of history moving, so that we can appreciated how humans instigate, are caught up in, and respond to historical events.

That said, the metatheatrical complexity of the piece was balanced at the Peacock Theatre by a winning simplicity of design. Eighteen history-travelling panels are framed by an introduction and farewell: an all-dancing, all-singing review number, ‘This is/was our Show’. As the Jedermanns perform their way through history, their purpose is only to entertain … so they say. As time ticks by, they pass through a series of door-panels which swivel to reveal emblems or titles which confirm time and place; they are edged with a stitch-like trim - white on black, black on white - which suggests both a railway track on which the wheels of the history-wagon roll, and the stitching together of the disparate parts into a seamless whole.

The economy of the staging and the witty use of a multitude of props and furniture pieces effectively establishes setting and situation, while the descent of a proscenium further frames four ‘operas-within-the opera’. The lighting is atmospheric and dramatic, and costumes are absolutely terrific, recreating an astounding number of sartorial styles - and demanding lightning-crack changes: one presumes that the back-stage team must have been working up a sweat too. In a memorable visual coup, the sudden arrival of the psychedelic ’60s - all yellow flares and clashing florals - was, after the previously prevailing black, white and grey, a shock to the eyes comparable to the moral outrage felt by conservatives at the time.

Holly Marie Bingham and Hugo Herman-Wilson Robert Workman  (1).jpgHolly Marie Bingham and Hugo Herman-Wilson. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

The Jedermanns (Hugo Herman-Wilson and Holly Marie Bingham) start out in 1901 as a support act at the Pier Theatre in Trouville, dreaming of the utopian future - world peace, a man on the moon. But, their fin de siècle optimism soon takes its first knock when we are introduced to the resident composer: the ambitious Berthold (Florian Panzieri) - his name wryly references to Berthold Goldschmidt, a German-born Jewish composer who had to wait until his eighties to achieve recognition and renown - whose first mini-opera, the hubristically titled ‘Playing God’, is set in the trenches of the Somme, where we see a Sergeant (Andrew Hamilton) play his part in defying death by deliberately disabling a young Private (Laurie Slavin) with a Blighty.

By the 1920s, relief that WW1 is over has given way to resentment about economic adversity: a concert party featuring the heroes of Versailles (Clemenceau, Woodrow Wilson and Lloyd George, played by Panzieri, Guy Elliot and Christopher Dollins respectively) is dampened by the threat of unemployment. The Jedermanns’ party seems over, but they adapt to the times and circumstances, heading to 1930s Spain where Mrs Jedermann tries her hand in the movies, playing a gangster’s moll. There’s no time to sentimentalise the death of their son (Laurie Slavin) in the Spanish Civil War, and in 1938 the Jedermanns set off for Berlin, where Ernest dallies with the chantreuse Tartine (Joanna Harries). By now, the action feels quite breathless as Warner piles up witty one-liners and cultural references in an almost overwhelming intellectual tapestry. There’s little alleviation of the prevailing feverishly thespian mode either, with gestures grand and melodramatic, and few excursions into a more ‘realistic’ style, even in the sections of spoken dialogue. At times I did wonder if less might have been more.

Berthold’s second mini-opera provides a brief pause and musical expansiveness though: the daily vigil of a couple who wait on a railway platform for their son, a POW, to return home offers a pathos which is enhanced by Blake’s expressive writing; the score is ably shaped by Friend and performed with style by the 27-strong Southbank Sinfonia. The couple receive a package: inside is a tape of their son’s last words, “They are not inhuman here”. A gunshot tells a different story.

Having travelled to Russia, in one of the strongest panels the Jedermanns find themselves both respondents in a Soviet show trial and standing before the House Un-American Activities Committee, simultaneously accused of Capitalism and Communism. The split-stage design generated terrific tension: found guilty and sentenced to ten years in Siberia/New York, “Onwards” Jedermann declared with characteristically innocent hopefulness.

Post-interval panels swept us through 1960s hippiedom and political protests, and revealed the medical advances which enable the aging Berthold to sustain his creative fecundity: in his next mini-opera, three masked female agents (Emily Christina Loftus, Amie Foon and Judith Le Breuilly) psychologically torment a male hostage accused of moral turpitude.

The panoply of cultural references - popular and erudite - continues to pile up: Warner even incorporates some wry self-irony, when Berthold bitterly recalls the directorial conceptualisations which have ‘ruined’ his operas. The monetarist dream of the 1980s becomes a ballad naively eulogising the “trickle-down” effect. I confess, that I found the final panels rather laboured - particularly when the Jedermanns found themselves in the Los Angeles casting agency of talent- spotter Benny Blumenkohl, and with their subsequent arrival in the studio where they are to film a 1999 New Year’s Eve TV special. But, the Jedermanns’ progress offers Blake the opportunity to demonstrate his dexterity in diverse idioms - cabaret, music hall, musical theatre, popular music, and opera - which merge into and with his own musical language (primarily in the mini-operas) and other classical pastiches.

British Youth Opera Scoring a Century credit Robert Workman (1).jpgBritish Youth Opera, Ensemble. Photo credit: Robert Workman.

Scoring a Century is an ensemble piece and given the collective commitment and accomplishment - and the consistently clear diction, spoken and sung - it seems unfair to select individuals for praise. But, as the central pair, the every youthful Jedermanns, Hugo Herman-Wilson and Holly Marie Bingham were astonishingly convincing and meticulous. When I saw Herman-Wilson perform the part of Quince in the Royal College of Music’s 2018 A Midsummer Night’s Dream he was, by coincidence, similarly stranded in a play-within-a-play, striving valiantly to make sense of the seemingly senseless. Here, to dramatic naturalness the baritone added the ability to switch between idioms with ease, and to employ a soothing, soft lyricism to inject moments of touching expressive sentiment. As composer Berthold, Florian Panzieri displayed theatrical panache, successfully skirting the slippery slope of overkill.

Having reached the millennium, what lies ahead for the Jedermanns? A nostalgic duet looks back at the good old days: they are confused by a world run by technological media and threatened by global warming. ‘That was our Show’ chorus the ensemble, closing the theatrical frame: and, the door to the future - literally and figuratively - remains closed to Jedermann.

“Nothing is important,” the Jedermanns have declared. So, what to make of this chronological mosaic which was simultaneously playfully insouciant and pointedly insightful? To return to my beginning, some post-show reflection brought me back to Eisler, a Marxist, who had studied with Schoenberg, and with whom Blake himself studied at the Academy of Arts in Berlin. This isn’t the place for a detailed exploration of Eisler’s theories and practice, but in an article, ‘A Musical Journey Through America’, he condemns the ‘factory-like’ system of specialisation within the Hollywood studio, with individuals (condemned to the ‘prospect of becoming hopelessly dim-witted’) forced to churn out prescribed genres: one does Viennese waltzes’ another ‘military marches’, one dance music, another only jazz.

If Hollywood manufactured art for the sake of entertainment then elitists who believed only in art for art’s sake were no better, in Eisler’s view. ‘Hits’ were, according to Eisler (in ‘Hollywood Seen from the Left’), ‘musical numbers that you can sing before you have even heard them’, an idea that he and Theodor Adorno revisited in 1947, in their dissection of the relationship between film music and the Hollywood film industry, Composing for the Films, in which Eisler lamented the failure of the latter to exploit film’s potential to serve as a political tool to educate the proletariat.

Considered in this context, the Jedermanns’ musically and politically adaptable-cum-opportunistic progress through the performance idioms of the 20th century might be considered an Eisler-influenced cinematic-musical montage which, through meta-theatrical irony, exposes the falsity of the Jedermanns’ “nothing is important”. Perhaps Scoring a Century is both an example and critique of the uncontainable multiplicity and parity of cultural paradigms which the opera itself embodies: an exemplification of the collapse of grand narratives. Exciting or terrifying? - well, I guess that one has to decide for oneself.

Claire Seymour

British Youth Opera - Scoring A Century: David Blake (composer), Keith Warner (librettist/director), Lionel Friend (conductor), Basia Bińkowska (set designer), Jasmine Swan (costume designer), John Bishop (lighting designer), Mandy Demetriou (movement director).

Peacock Theatre, London; Saturday 31st August 2019.

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