Grange Park Opera’s ‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’
‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’ has music by Alex Woolf and a libretto by David Pountney © Richard Lewisohn

Artistic inspiration alone does not determine what music a composer writes. Politics and social change have been important influences, at times shaking the course of musical history to its roots.

One obvious case was the first world war. The works written in the decade up to 1914 include some of the most ambitious pieces of music ever composed, such as Mahler’s Symphony No.8, Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder and Strauss’s opera Der Rosenkavalier, each a hugely expensive undertaking. By contrast, the years after 1918 are characterised by pithy, medium-scale pieces. Romantic idealism died in the trenches, and austerity imposed a cutback in resources.

We are probably at another turning point like that now. Given how long it will take for the financial losses incurred during the pandemic to work their way through the system, we could be facing years of retrenchment in the arts.

A foretaste of the future can be seen online. The internet is already brimming with new operas specifically written for streaming. Many are short (five to 10 minutes), small in scale (up to five or six performers) and, because they were commissioned in the early days of the pandemic, very specific in their subject matter. Watching one after another is not recommended. Pandemic-related isolation, grief and a feeling of powerlessness loom large, but alongside the lingering shots of lone souls pacing deserted streets or languishing in abandoned buildings, there is variety to be had if one chooses carefully.

Katalin Károlyi performs as part of ‘Eight Songs in Isolation’

Here is a round-up of what is already out there. The OperaHarmony online collective was first in the field and it is still the biggest. Having launched in August, it has now reached its full quota of 20 mini-operas in four collections. All are available to view free of charge on the EU-funded OperaVision website.

Up to five performers, a combination of singers and instrumentalists, were allowed for each project and the films, by 20 different composers and production teams, vary from sophisticated and arty to a cartoon-like collage. The final collection is typically diverse, including a wry operetta about out-of-work singers, an ode to spring, and a fraught, surreal, comic look at how the residents of a house fill the day during lockdown — yoga in the basement and 24-hour online share-dealing in the penthouse.

The most prestigious offering so far is Eight Songs from Isolation, commissioned by conductor Oliver Zeffman. This collection of eight brief monologues is exclusively available to subscribers to Apple Music and advertises its origins — “conceived, written, composed, designed, recorded and shot on iPhone” — with pride. Its selling point is the star list of composers. Thomas Adès, Julian Anderson, Helen Grime and Nico Muhly are in the mix, each contributing a mini-opera, adding up to about 45 minutes for the set of eight. The music here is a cut above the competition, though the isolation theme may get wearing.

The most memorable is Adès’s Gyökér, in which a Hungarian poet wanders in a forest, the native rhythms of her language hauntingly suggestive over a delicate accompaniment of percussion. Soprano Julia Bullock sings a marvellously expressive monologue in Freya Waley-Cohen’s Spell for Reality. Ilya Demutsky’s I Guess the Universe Is to Blame, filmed in an abandoned hut, has touches of Orwell’s 1984 as a man tries to divine the truth about the pandemic from an unseen authority. Only Muhly’s New-Made Tongue, performed by countertenor Iestyn Davies, offers some hope for the future with its uplifting message of “new burnished joys”.

Julia Bullock performs ‘Spell for Reality’ as part of ‘Eight Songs from Isolation’
Julia Bullock performs ‘Spell for Reality’ as part of ‘Eight Songs from Isolation’

In much the same vein comes the hour-long Is This the End? from Brussels. Described as a “pop requiem”, this experimental opera-film follows a teenage girl who is stuck between life and death, wandering through a labyrinth in the netherworld. The labyrinth in question is the backstage area of Brussels’s opera house La Monnaie/De Munt, where writhing bodies populate the corridors and zombies lurk in the basement. There is plenty of coronavirus desolation here, but the mood is lightened by colourful interludes featuring a song-and-dance group, and on her travels the girl meets, among others, Dante, Ariadne and Brünnhilde. Jean-Luc Fafchamps’s music is eclectic, embracing orchestra, electric guitars and high coloratura soprano. This La Monnaie/De Munt commission is freely available on YouTube until November 3.

Grange Park Opera’s ‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’
Grange Park Opera’s ‘A Feast in the Time of Plague’ © Richard Lewisohn

The nearest thing to a real opera, and the most entertaining of those under review, comes from Grange Park Opera. A Feast in the Time of Plague, with music by Alex Woolf and libretto by David Pountney, is based on a short story by Pushkin set at the time of London’s Great Plague of 1665-66. A cast of 12 assemble for a final meal, watched over by a Death/Judas figure, hinting at the rites of the Last Supper. In the second half they expire one by one, but not before each gets the chance to sing a solo number from an array of wildly diverse styles that sum up their characters.

Woolf delivers music of chameleon-like adaptability and the production was filmed live in Grange Park’s theatre. The downside is that there is only a piano accompaniment, but the cast is high-quality, led by Claire Booth, Simon Keenlyside, Peter Hoare and Clive Bayley. For her farewell number Susan Bullock, playing a latter-day Cassandra who saw the plague coming, gets a wickedly witty take-off of Kurt Weill’s “The Saga of Jenny”, worth hearing just for itself. Thank heavens that somebody gives us a laugh.,,

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