LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search

The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Urban disaster: the opera

By Norman Lebrecht / June 20, 2007

It’s a midweek mid-morning at the Elephant and Castle and the Bakerloo Line has been suspended on account of ‘faulty points’. The underpass is home to slumbering drunks and guttered with stale urine. Above ground, heavy goods vehicles circulate the roundabout and low-value tat stalls impede the glass-door entrance to the award-winning shopping centre, a municipal architect’s failed utopia.

Elephant and Castle, the South London housing project, is destined for demolition in 2010, and not a moment too soon. Elephant and Castle, the opera, opens at the 60th Aldeburgh Festival in Suffolk tomorrow (June 21). It is a dangerous venture into the gulf between sketchboard vision and urban reality, an art work built around the age-old legend of two children lost or abducted in a jungle. The producers name Hansel and Gretel as their historical model, but overtones of Jamie Bulger and Madeleine McCann are inescapable.

I join some of the team in rehearsal above Tesco’s at the Elephant, in a storage room whose walls are papered with strategies for making people buy more than they need. The air-conditioning is at full blast and every tactile surface feels synthetic. The hole in the ozone layer is growing by the minute and the music is by no means friendly, yet the atmosphere in rehearsal is naïve and, unexpectedly, sentimental.

Tansy Davies, the composer, reminisces wistfully that she was brought here as a child. ‘It was a scary environment but wonderful in many ways. The big flyover on the Old Kent Road was one of my father’s earliest engineering jobs, he was very proud of it. Really strong structure.’

‘I’ve been coming here since I was a little boy, when it was opened in 1965,’ chimes Tim Hopkins, the director. ‘My mother was a primary-school teacher in the neighbourhood and we used to come here a lot. And when we came here, it was an idea of the future. It was enclosed, it was warm, you didn’t have to wear a coat. It was an exciting place to go.’ You can almost bottle the nostalgia in the room.

Fond as their recall may be, it bears no relation to the greyness of the present surroundings. In two hours at the precinct, I see no-one smile. Shoppers trudge lock-jawed through neon-lit discount stores. Restaurant owners struggle with their armoured window-shutters. Train guards shrug fatalistically, as if their function is to disconnect rather than communicate. Elephant and Castle is a textbook case of what bad buildings can do to public mood, morale and behaviour.

‘Over 40 years,’ observes Tim Hopkins, ‘the idea this place represented has unravelled, as the society changed. What struck me is that a whole generation of buildings is now being torn down, reconfigured, effaced. Some constructively like the South Bank Centre. Others, like this, negatively, to be wiped from memory. It seemed to me that our emotional architecture is also affected.’

The idea for the opera germinated with Hopkins, who balances a theatre and opera career (his last show was Britten’s Owen Wingrave at the Linbury, in Covent Garden) with a near-consuming interest in the social impact of design and technology. Ten years ago, Hopkins was smitten at an exhibition by a photograph of Denys Lasdun, architect of the brutalist National Theatre, wearing battledress at the Normandy landings and lecturing soldiers, swagger-stick in hand, on the brave new world of cement-mix cities.

The architect as unsung hero lies at the heart of this opera, and the first collaborator Hopkins brought on board was Pippa Nissen, a theatre designer with a riverside architectural practice who holds true to the Lasdun faith in city planning for a better life. ‘It was such a vision for London,’ she maintains. ‘They even talked of Elephant as a tourist magnet, a shopping experience connected to the South Bank.’

Its inauguration coincided with the rise of a concert hall in Suffolk, Benjamin Britten’s bold conversion of the disused Maltings at Snape into a performing space for classical and contemporary music. ‘People were trying to rebuild the nation through shopping centres and concert halls,’ explains Hopkins with a nerdish fervour and a nasal accent that unwittingly parodies Ken Livingstone’s. ‘It’s all about the claim of the city on the imagination,’ he cries.

Taken up and funded by Jonathan Reekie who runs the re-energised Aldeburgh Festival with Thomas Ades as artistic director, the embryonic opera was finally introduced to its makers, the writer Blake Morrison, author of a study of the Bulger murder, and two composers, Tansy Davies and Mira Calix, one working with orchestral instruments, the other with electronics. Both have an interest in architecture. Davies has written a trumpet concerto, Spiral House, structured on a Zaha Hadid design for a villa in the Netherland, unbuilt like many of her best ideas (‘she explores a building from every angle simultaneously,’ extols Davies, ‘I find that so musical.’) Davies attempts much he same with a folk song, contorting its simple bucolic tones into a sore-throated urban rhythm. There are five singers and a dozen instrumentalists in the piece. ‘Shall I make it rougher?’ says Richard Morris, playing the children’s father.

The opera will be staged indoors and outdoors simultaneously in two locations, the Maltings and the nearby reed beds. The singing is alternately operatic and streetwise. The imagery is both live and canned. ‘We’re bringing filmed footage from Elephant and we’re putting it in a rural context,’ enthuses Pippa Nissen. ‘We’re also, through buildings and different installations, playing with an idea of what makes a house, what makes a home.’

On paper, in conversation with the team and even in keyboard rehearsal, this sounds like one of those projects that dazzle in submission, win a plenitude of grants and prizes and are never seen again after the festive premiere. Hopkins himself admits that it’s ‘site-specific, it can only happen here,’ and Davies is still unsure ‘how you express something as offensive as this in music.’

And then there’s the child abduction story which Hopkins regards as a ‘decorative’ addition to his abstract theme, but which in the climate of the McCann search gives the opera a desperate immediacy. ‘The danger is in the deep background,’ says Hopkins, clinging to his boyhood impression of the safety of shopping centres. ‘The audience is invited to interpret that context.’ The sensationalism that attends the very mention of child abduction is being strenuously toned down. A few days before opening, very little about this opera is set in concrete.

Whether Elephant and Castle works as art or will ever be restaged, one has to admire the stony-eyed stubbornness of its creators in defending the discredited ideals of the post-War city. At one level it’s like making an opera out of Das Kapital on the assumption that its theories had never been put into practice. On another it is a genuine quest for understanding whether bad buildings breed bad people, or merely accommodate them.

In an arts industry that is stultified by convention and self-regard, an opera about urban disaster could be just the ticket. It may not be the sort of thing you want to see after a long day at the trading screen, but the isolation of Britten’s Aldeburgh is a perfect place to contemplate the mess we have made of mass habitation and the purpose of a festival (as Edinburgh and Salzburg nowadays forget) is to do things distinctly different from the mainstream. Britten himself would have hated the music, but he would certainly have endorsed the purpose of the opera.

Ten years from now, the misery that is Elephant and Castle will be a distant memory and the remedies that replace it will foster a fresh range of unplanned problems. All that will remain of the original vision for the precinct is an opera, and the opera itself will be unseen. But the issue of humanising the city will be as urgent then as it is now and the question of how we protect our children will be no closer to resolution.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


(c) La Scena Musicale 2001-2006