Melbourne Festival: The Minotaur Trilogy ~ theatre notes

Monday, October 22, 2012

Melbourne Festival: The Minotaur Trilogy

Festival Diary #7

Chamber Made Opera's innovative series of Living Room Operas - small-scale opera performances commissioned as site-specific works and performed in private houses - has produced some of the more interesting work I've seen over the past few years. Works such as Daniel Schlusser's Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Any More and Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey's beautifully judged Dwelling Structure opened out and questioned domestic space in fascinating and sometimes disturbing ways; Another Lament, a collaboration with Rawcus, successfully made the difficult transition from domestic space to theatre when it transferred to the Malthouse earlier this year.

The Minotaur Trilogy: Chamber Made Opera

But relocating a site-specific performance is a tricky and delicate business which materially changes the nature of the work. The Minotaur Trilogy, which premiered as a tripartite work as part of the Melbourne Festival, demonstrates how problematic this can be. I saw the first part of David Young and Margaret Cameron's trilogy, Island, back in 2011, in the living room of a St Kilda Road apartment. Parts two and three, The Labyrinth and The Boats, are extensions of the original idea, here shown together for the first time.

The Minotaur Trilogy is in three parts of 49 minutes each, punctuated by 20 minute intervals, to make a work that lasts for three hours altogether. This makes it, among other things, a durational work: the audience is asked to spend time with the six performers, and further, to be aware of that time. Durational theatre can be deeply rewarding, but in this case for me it simply became an exercise in impatience. Repetition that plays off variations on minimal themes can pay off in two ways: it can deepen and enrich - perhaps the classic example of this is Bach's Goldberg Variations - or it can deaden and impoverish. Here, sadly, I just felt deadened.

The Melbourne Recital Centre's Salon, an intimate, wood-panelled performance space with near-perfect acoustics, is a very different proposition to a living room. It's a much larger space, for a start, and it mercilessly exposes everything: music, performance, design, choreography. In a living room, with the performers less than three feet away, the domestic context gave Part 1, Island, a playful, improvised quality that infused the performances with a certain humility: the found nature of the props and costumes - hats made from pencil cases and handbags, worn bits of driftwood - was foregrounded, and the sense of discovering ritual and myth within the ordinary and everyday was palpable. Performed in the round, with a new distance not only between the performers but between the performers and the audience, these qualities melted away, leaving in their wake an uncomfortable sense of archness.

Part 2, The Labyrinth, is mainly performed in darkness. The audience re-enters to find the chairs rearranged into a maze: you more or less find a seat by feel. All the chairs face forward to a stage area, where, as your eyes adjust to the darkness, you can see performers and musicians moving. Sometimes a little flare of light emerges from a tealight candle, but mostly they are shadows in shadow. The score here again is minimal: percussion and voice that rise out of silence heralding a tableau that is constructed before a screen on a small platform, and briefly illuminated, as if with a camera flash.

Time is literally marked off by a digital timer at the back of the space: each tableau occurs after a period that is counted down, 3 minutes and thirty seconds, 10 seconds, four and a half minutes, two and a half minutes. I couldn't discern a pattern in the time modules, although there may have been one: it might equally have been randomly generated. The heraldic images that flash so fleetingly before you are often beautiful and mysterious: a woman in a shift whose head is a flower, a man with the head of a monster.

Part 3, The Boats, is performed in traverse; the six performers are all standing on wooden blocks, aside from the singer, the beautifully-voiced Deborah Kayser, who stands on a low platform at one end of the space. The performers, aside from Kayser, all have shoes on their heads, with white feathers sticking out of them, images of boats and sails. Again the score depends on repetition: every now and then the performers step off the blocks, with the slow, formal movements that characterise this show, and turn to face the other way. In one felicitious moment, the score is repeated when they all open musical cards.

There are several interesting ideas at work in The Minotaur Trilogy, but I was struck by their parsimony: it doesn't give much to its audience. This is a work turned relentlessly inward on the subjectivities of the performers: the audience is expected to provide the work of meaning, picking up on the hints given by props or gestures. You can certainly weave images together, picking up the symbolism of legend of the Minotaur: the cursed sexual passion for a bull, the half-man half beast, the abandoned woman, the treacherous Theseus. I am not usually averse to this process, and I'm not even averse to being a little bored, if that boredom leads somewhere - The Rabble's Orlando, for instance, plays beautifully with this particular tension.

David Young's music employs many familiar tropes of New Music - using found objects as instruments, or using instruments in different ways (bowing everything in sight, for instance) - but fatally lacks any energy of discovery: somehow I've heard it all before, done better. The experience of time as a kind of psychic space was very different, for instance, to listening to the almost vanishingly absent scores of Morton Feldman, in which silence and note are so acutely judged that they cumulatively become an exercise in plenitude. As is particularly clear in The Labyrinth, potential theatrical or musical tension is immediately dissipated in an increasingly uninhabited silence or in movement or imprecise choreography that too often seems simply meaningless.

I wondered why each section was 49 minutes - was it some kind of numerology, seven by seven by three (which adds up to 147 and then reduces to 3, the most sacred number of all... but why was I thinking this?) The time felt increasingly arbitrary, the attention demanded by the performance increasingly obscure. Mainly there was an ever-lengthening feeling of attenuation, of ideas and gestures becoming thinner and thinner as time passed. And for me it passed very slowly indeed.

The Minotaur Trilogy, by Margaret Cameron and David Young, performed by Caroline Lee, Deborah Kayser and Hellen Sky, musicians Mark Cauvin, Matthias Schack-Arnott and Anastasia Russell-Head. Chamber Made Opera and Melbourne Festival, Salon, Melbourne Recital Centre. Closed.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the opportunity to comment. I went Saturday night and loved it.Here is a different view. I agree with Parsons.

In the clutch of the Minotaur - Chamber Made Opera's daring addition to new opera.
Submitted by Ian Parsons on Sat 20 October 3:29pm
The Sound Barrier : Blog
Now is probably one of the most exciting times ever for opera. When we remember that opera is really the ultimate synthesis of the arts – music, theatre, words, stories, movement, visual art – and that, over the past fifty years or so, all of those have been exploding with revolutionary dynamite that has propelled them in a zillion new directions, we can begin to imagine what a rich, vibrant world modern opera has to explore.
Opera sometimes puts all those bits together, side by side, in incredibly interesting and engaging ways. Great music with great words sung in front of great sets by people wearing great costumes. And when each of those bits is invigorated by all the creativity and invention that the past half-century has allowed, the results can be amazing.
And then sometimes opera goes that step further and amalgamates those bits into a massive, mysterious, masterful whole, where singers are sets, where instruments are actors, where words are music and where music is theatre. And that’s when you get new opera as it really should be experienced.
And that’s what you get if you manage to get along to the latest offering from Chamber Made Opera at this year’s Melbourne International Festival: The Minotaur Trilogy.
Minotaur’s three parts integrate not only all these elements of artistic expression, each with new and strange life breathed into them by the work’s creators David Young and Margaret Cameron, but they somehow seem also to span eons and ages, where Greek and Roman mythology, and the austere minimalism of Monteverdi opera, and the ancient human journeys to places of loss, loneliness and transformation, and the sea, and the whispering breath of a half-man-half-bull, weave webs of sound and silence and light and darkness around you, and hold you there, in their grip.
It’s hard to describe the music and theatre of Minotaur in a way that does it justice. Its sounds are often sparse, almost ascetic, like the long and literally breathtaking drone of the second part, performed in almost total darkness but for sudden bursts of light where strange, uncanny images appear for a moment amidst an explosion of vocalised sound, and then are gone. Or when in Part Three Mark Cauvin’s double bass is turned upside down and rubs across the floor or Anastasia Russell-Head glides her fingers across the strings of her harpsichord, and suddenly we are not just hearing the desolate sounds of a boat creaking at sea, but feeling it too. But then there are moments of intense drama, like in Part One when Deborah Kayser as Ariadne sings in her commanding voice from the depths of the subterranean architecture while Mathias Schack-Arnott smashes away on a bass drum with primeval violence.
But these are just moments. The real strength of Minotaur, not unlike the real strength of Monteverdi operas, the last of which was the starting point for this work, lies in the experience of its totality, the experience of allowing yourself to be immersed in its world, fantastic and foreign, something which the incredible staging of this piece in the Melbourne Recital Centre’s Salon brilliantly does right from the beginning where you, the audience, become the shoreline that holds the action captive.
It’s a powerful work – powerful when it’s quiet, powerful when it’s loud, powerful in its austerity, powerful in its richness. I can’t help but think that this is the sort of thing that Monteverdi would have wanted to write if he lived today.
In a few weeks I hope to bring you an episode of The Sound Barrier devoted especially to some of the interesting things that have been happening in opera over the past half-century. I’ll surely bring some of The Minotaur Trilogy to you then, even if it can only provide you with the smallest glimpse into this incredible work.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon - many thanks for posting that alternative view, although I wonder if Ian Parson knows? I'd feel more comfortable if there were a link to the blog as well.

It's fair to say that this has been a fairly polarising production!

Anonymous said...


Here's the weblink to Ian Parsons blog

Alison Croggon said...

And here's a live link