At the 2016 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, the world première of Body-Opera by Polish composer Wojtek Blecharz didn’t exactly go to plan. Located at The Hepworth Wakefield – and set up somewhat hurriedly in the aftermath of the awarding of The Hepworth Prize for Sculpture that had recently taken place – an ensuing electrical fault caused a cluster of power points to fuse and melt, leading to the abandonment of the performance. As a consolation prize, the audience was treated to a short excerpt. From the composer’s perspective, it appears to have turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Listening to him talk about the piece a couple of weeks ago, prior to its second performance at the Nowy Teatr in the Mokotów district of central Warsaw (a beautiful building converted from a warehouse for refuse vehicles), Blecharz clearly believes the problems experienced at Huddersfield were ultimately beneficial. He spoke about not seeing the work as ‘closed’, and to prove the point he has subsequently taken the opportunity to develop it further, in the process greatly expanding it from one to almost two hours’ duration. Developed through a pair of previous works, Transcryptum (2013) and Park-Opera (2016), Blecharz has a very specific outlook and purpose for Body-Opera. He wants to shift the focus from the performer to the audience, creating what he describes as a “shared contemplation of sound”.
To this end, picture the scene: neatly arranged in the four quadrants of the space were 100 mats, one for each member of the audience, with accompanying blankets and pillows. Within each pillow, a loudspeaker, channelling sound directly into the ears and skull of its supine recumbent. Beside the mat, a small black box containing sundry paraphernalia for use during the piece. Across the middle of the space, in one direction, a collection of large suspended metal thundersheets, in the other, something akin to a catwalk with a collection of percussive accoutrements. And above the space, in the centre, a large screen upon which various abstract shapes and film clips appeared. Blecharz’s urge to involve the audience – removing the division between them and the stage – stems from a desire to restore a social or communal aspect that he believes to be lost from conventional operatic production. But the word ‘opera’ in the work’s title is clearly intended to connote the original meaning of the word, the plural word “work”, in addition to its specifically theatrical implications. Blecharz’s Body-Opera consists of a similar collection of discrete, contrasting works that together comprise the whole. What exactly that whole is, or is intended to be, is somewhat harder to articulate.
If one were to describe Body-Opera as a cross between an ambient all-night performance and a relaxation tape and a yoga session and a self-help guide and a new-age ‘wellbeing’ experience and a concert and a happening and a piece of performance art, that would be as good a place as any to start. It’s all of these things. Opening with a roughly 25-minute episode of delicious ambient drift – soft voices melding into low drones, plinky-plonk pitches from the pillow joining with the sound of rain from speakers around the space – the crude demarcation of the work’s structure, depending on your perspective, either reinforced Blecharz’s efforts to obviate the conventions of theatrical production or turned the piece into a conveyor belt of disjointed ideas sharing a tenuous connection. Again, it was both of these things. Thankfully, the physical aspects for the audience were neither arduous nor embarrassing: we were guided through assorted gentle exercises to loosen up our mind and body, placed stickers onto a figurine in response to questions concerning our perceptions of our own and our neighbours’ bodies, applied a scent to our wrists and placed a sherbet-like substance onto our tongues. Interesting, entertaining, amusing, but i wondered then and i wonder still what it meant within and contributed to the larger work.
The quartet of performers, dancer Karol Tymiński, double bassist Beltane Ruiz Molina, percussionist Alexandre Babel plus Blecharz himself, were at their most directly engaging in passages where they played on the thundersheets, a mixture of semi-improvised textures and meticulously-notated rhythmic patterns that moved between gentle waves of sound and vast walls of noise. Even more striking was a lengthy central episode in which Tymiński, Molina and Babel worked their way across the central catwalk in a mesmerising display of dance and music seamlessly integrated. As elsewhere, the emphasis here remained on bodies: Molina abandoned her bow to percussively work over every available inch of the body of her double bass; Tymiński acrobatically threw his body around her, occasionally duetting on the bass, while Babel acted as something akin to a referee, marching back and forth using his own body as both a sounding board and an implement for striking assorted percussion instruments, culminating in an extended violent smashing of a piece of wood.
Considering how sedentary we had been throughout the 100 minutes of Body-Opera, it proved as exhausting to experience as it must have been for the performers. There was a lot to take in, to make sense of, to reflect upon. Certainly, Blecharz’s attempt to re-establish and reinvent an operatic “house of sound” had been a considerable success; at both the micro- and macro-scales – within our pillows and throughout the space – the Nowy Teatr was for the duration a place seemingly constructed solely for this music to inhabit (though there were times when Blecharz’s electronic music, laden with heavyweight bass poundings, had inhabited the space rather too uncomfortably). But what had we experienced? What did we come away with? Though not operatic – there’s no narrative, after all, and no singing – the work is entitled to call itself an ‘opera’ provided that we’re prepared to redefine what that term means. And while it lacked a narrative, it was by no means wanting of a theme, though as i’ve intimated already, precisely what was the accumulation of its discrete elements is difficult to say. To my mind, what Wojtek Blecharz has created here is less a piece of music or art than a kind of corrective, an extended act that is both applied to and by the audience, in order to strip away and slough off at least some of the collection of connotations, associations, conventions and assumptions that we take for granted in music generally and theatrical music specifically. An ‘aesthetic exfoliant’ if you will, enabling one to approach music differently thereafter. i can certainly testify that i left the Nowy Teatr thinking and feeling very differently from how i’d entered it.
There are further performances of Body-Opera lined up; anyone in the region of Luxembourg can experience it for themselves in November.