Cat Hope: Speechless

I returned from Brisbane and a six month trip on the last day in February, and it seems like after a period of ARI closures in which it felt as if Perth had suffered a lull of energy, I suddenly find myself wanting to write again, and missing things I really wanted to see. Hopefully this bodes well for the future.

But what I want to talk about first, while it is still fresh, was what I saw on Sunday the 3rd of March – the last performance of Cat Hope’s opera, Speechless. This was a brilliant performance, with extreme and masterful vocalisation from various backgrounds joined together. The Australian Bass orchestra (which plays only notes below middle C) was a beautiful creature, a strange shadow version of a full orchestra. The soloists, Sage Pbbbt, Judith Dodsworth, Karina Utomo and Tara Tiba performed a series of varied yet equally extreme vocalisations, each coming from their respective backgrounds of throat singing, opera, metal and traditional Persian and contemporary experimental music. Their performances, and the performance of the bass Orchestra, were the two most crucial components of the work and both were exemplary. As a peculiar hybrid, the combination and great variety of musical form on offer merged into a wonderful and coherent whole – though I would also argue that the diverse musical influences left less room for a deeper interrogation and analysis of what each vocal form could bring to the opera format.

There are only two criticisms I can offer of the aural performance, and even they come with concession: I imagine due to the limitations of producing a show that doesn’t tour and only runs so briefly, the arrangements for the large chorus seemed to be a small part of the whole, and the physical presence of so many people was not fully capitalised on, however, the few times they engaged in the work were intriguing and beguiling, and I would have loved to see their physical presence on stage more often. The only other peculiar thing that comes to mind is the occasional bright and chaotic cymbal percussion, that often seemed to flatten the richness of the bass composition. I thought that the bass orchestration was always directed and purposeful, but lost itself against these strange percussive elements. In contrast to this, the equally wild bowing of the harp performed by Catherine Ashley was similarly chaotic, but only ever added to the composition.

The staging was exemplary – minimal and restrained, it was a powerful arena setting for the show. Upon entering the space, one had the peculiar feeling of walking into a space with a mirror bisecting it. Once this illusion was dispelled, the long oval stage allowed the performance to occur between the two halves of the audience, offering a kind of performativity that music performance and especially traditional opera rarely has. The lighting; thin fluorescent or LED bands that intersected with the stage in a vertical and horizontal manner were a brilliant choice, and provided a really engaged lighting scheme for the performance. Meanwhile, several pieces of shiny, monochromatic cloth, hanging from the suspended lights in monolithic rectangular bands were the objects of the gestures that the soloists performed. The slow drawing of the cloth from the lights and the subsequent tie-ing, arranging and preparation of the cloth as the garments for the performers was an effective and beautiful execution of a simple and elegant idea.

Interestingly, the softness and steadiness of the gestures were often at odds with the vocals, except for the powerful solo performed by Karina Utomo, where her hair was undone and flowed down over her face as another, black curtain, and the fabric was stretched and pulled across the stage in the nearest the opera got to a truly violent gesture. Utomo’s solo as a whole, also accompanied by the appearance of drum and guitar orchestration, was incredible. While initially it seemed to be included as something of a gimmick, the strength of Hope’s orchestration and Utomo’s performance, and the performance of drums and bass guitars quelled any possible doubts surrounding the placement of this within an orchestral setting, and any criticisms that could be directed towards the decision not to more fully integrate it into the general arrangement of the piece: sometimes separating as opposed to attempting to combine contrasting musical styles and elements serves to further exemplify their unique power.

The power of the bass orchestra is also something worth mentioning. The richness of sound that Hope refers to in the catalogue is readily apparent in listening to the work, the more classical instrumentation revealed a sense of depth and texture in the bass sound that is so often hidden in its role as substratum for traditional composition. However, it was the electronics that provided one of the most extraordinary, and also one of the most expected moments: the appearance near the end of the work of electronically produced bass sounds that seemed to vibrate the very window panes, yet despite its inevitability in a work featuring such proclivity for bass, it still provided a glimpse into some awesome, dense abyss.

I have heard several criticisms about the content in relation to the execution of the work, (and I have certainly previously had my doubts about the efficacy of Decibel’s approach to socio-politico problems). The piece is a non-lingual work composed out of a concern for the treatment of refugee children in detention, and governmental failure. Hope states that she believes music can be a conduit for contemplating difficult subjects, yet I prefer to interpret the particularities of the choices Hope made in generating the graphic score as informing the work, more than its point of inception, or its politics. The process of creation she undertook was to transform the graphic design of the document The Forgotten Children: National Enquiry into Children in Immigration Detention into a graphic score – utilising “colour schemes, drawings, tables, photographs” (quote from the catalogue) to create the orchestration of the work. If I could outline an argument for a reading of this work, I would suggest that rather than operating in a polemic fashion towards the treatment of refugees, it is actually about the treatment such serious matters receive in official documentation and reports. Reports so dry and cold that humanity has been carefully expunged from their surface. Hannah Arendt would probably call it the ‘banality of evil’. The large rectangles of fabric, the careful, minimal outline of the stage, all these factors seem like the careful construction and design of an official document that could contain anything from the most heinous to the most joyous, all without a change in tone. The work’s musical response to this is something like a cry of wrath and agony at the homogenising and banalising powers of official design standards and their corollary in official language. It is an act undertaken against and within a Pantone prison. The sheen of the acrylic cloth, its clean lines ruptured by the gestures of the performers that at times seem to be wringing out these swathes of blank fabric, is an attempt to extract some meaning from the sheen of the laser print beneath which all manner of atrocities are committed. And so while perhaps not directly related to the ostensible subject, I think there is certainly an argument made in this work that is related intimately to the issues at hand, and of even broader relevance to contemporary life.

I’d also like to take this opportunity to angrily ask ‘the conversation’ what exactly it is lauding its reviewing of contemporary art for? I'd like to ask if what it’s really doing is providing criticism, or just offering us pandering, pedestrian reviews without courage or interest. It almost seems as if the reviewer watched the performance out of obligation, or even if they enjoyed it, certainly didn’t enjoy writing about it. What exactly did this article tell us about opera in the 21st century, and what did they say that wasn’t just a platitude about Hope’s creation? So much so for criticism. The note from Hope herself in the catalogue told as much as the review did, and I sincerely hope that ‘the conversation’ can set its sights on a higher standard of critique for its future engagements with contemporary arts. Perhaps less self-congratulation and more work is needed.

In this line of contextualisation then, there are a number of operatic works that have sprung up in recent years that bear comparing and contrasting to Hope’s speechless. Certainly there have been some that I regard as more successful works, that also broach stylistic lines like Hope’s work did, but do so in a less broad and more sustained and singular fashion. There is the brutal simplicity and ludic humour of Dean Blunt and Mica Levi’s Inna, performed at the serpentine, which despite its street cred, possesses the same stark and effective approach to staging. Or Koudlam and Cyprien Gaillard’s Desniansky Raion, (or here) which has social politics and realities (the destruction of modernist public housing and fighting football team fans) at its core but, like Hope, doesn’t try to be polemic, and perhaps goes even further and instead lets history cascade over it. Hope’s work is more traditional than either of these approaches, not as willing to forgo the structure of opera or to really go beyond its moral directive. However, it shares with them an attempt to revitalise a form that appears like some strange Frankenstein’s monster, made from the ruins of its demise. It is a weird triumph that we see a work like this now; that tries to overcome opera’s difficulties, inherited from Richard Wagner and his totalising gesamtkunstwerk, and return its inclusive potential to other ends. More than these contemporaneous attempts at opera, Hope’s work most resembles Meredith Monk’s early operatic works, that signalled her own transition from speech to non-sense or to vocalisation without content. It is in this lineage then, of the ‘American Maverick’ tradition of opera, that Hope’s work emerges from, though certainly there are several other pieces of Australian Opera that fit this form: Amanda Stewart’s The sinking of the Rainbow Warrior warrants comparison for its similarly dramatic choice of theme, however, perhaps it contains a mistake that Hope has learned from, as The sinking of the rainbow warrior’s strongest moments are the vocalisations that Stewart herself makes, whereas the more traditional operatic singing of words, even reinforced with Stewart’s writing, are not able to address the issues at hand nearly as effectively.

In the final call, this was an extraordinary work, bringing together people from all over Australia and making something incredible happen in this faraway town.


Graham Mathwin


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