The opportunity to hear two new works by Laura Bowler within a single week isn’t just a exciting prospect, it’s a daunting one. Her subject matter has oscillated between the personal and the global, at both extremes seeking to address the pain and damage that far too many people are far too tempted simply to ignore. Bowler’s two latest works, both multimedia pieces, again demonstrated this oscillating focus: The Blue Woman addresses the aftermath of rape; Distance explores the effects of air travel on the environment.
While it’s not difficult to make personal stories powerful, it can be harder to get the same impact from global narratives, as they can seem so overwhelming. Bowler’s approach is to keep the emphasis on the personal, homing in on individual responses (often including her own) to large-scale concerns. This was heard to excellent effect in Antarctica (which i explored last year), but it felt much less persuasive in Distance. The piece was performed at the Parabola Arts Centre – as one of the very few instances of contemporary music in the ever-more-depressingly-conservative Cheltenham Music Festival – by soprano Juliet Fraser, joined remotely by Talea Ensemble, performing via a live link-up from New York. Context for the work was provided in an introduction combining recordings of various people speaking about their thoughts, positive and negative, regarding air travel and a live online survey with the audience expressing our views about it, with the results projected on a screen above the stage. This was followed by Fraser articulating a non-linear melange of sentiments, assertions, desires, hopes, intimations and anxieties. The ensemble’s material was a surprisingly generic, though sympathetic, accompaniment, carefully following and echoing Fraser like a loyal band of supporters.
i’ve sometimes wondered whether Bowler’s aim is less to create memorable music than a memorable experience, which is in no way a criticism, particularly not when her work can make such a huge impression. But in Distance both the music and the experience fell short, lacking strong coherence and giving the impression of a well-meant but messy collection of related episodes. Perhaps it’s not helped by the fact that the subject matter doesn’t have a clear solution. The work’s implication was to solve air pollution by simply stopping flying altogether, though the questions of to what extent a large-scale reduction in air travel might improve the situation, or better still that air travel itself is improved to mitigate pollution, weren’t part of this exploration. Then there’s the assertion the work makes that air travel changes us, that we come out of the plane different from how we went in. Temporarily-speaking, it’s hard to disagree – flying can be a trying, tiring experience at the best of times – but a permanent change would be a much more bold claim that i wouldn’t agree with. (To be fair, Distance doesn’t directly make this claim, but it was implied.) It’s obviously good that new music tackles thorny issues such as this, but its lack of a cohesive, personally-charged epicentre seriously reduced its power to compel or convince.
The Blue Woman, on the other hand, could hardly have been more different. Indeed, its power was so considerable that the attempt to write meaningfully about it feels more than usually formidable. Let me start by severely misquoting conductor Thomas Beecham:
People may not like sexual violence, but they absolutely love the noise it makes.
A misquote maybe, but one that seems entirely accurate in the circumstances. Despite being a long-time lover of opera, i’ve never been able to ignore not only the all-too-common absurdities of their plot contrivances – why don’t people just talk to each other a bit more? – but the just as common instances of their women protagonists being violently inflicted with degradation, distress and destruction. The Blue Woman was premièred on 6 July in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre, and coincidentally, at the same time on the main stage, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was playing out. Upstairs and downstairs that evening, the Royal Opera House was focusing on the mistreatment of women, though in very different ways.
Where Distance‘s fragmented narrative felt confused, the same in The Blue Woman seemed necessary and unavoidable, becoming a kind of post-traumatic fever dream. The fragmentation extended to the performers: four singers and four cellos, the exploded constituent parts of a single, devastated psyche. Singers and cellists alike thus sometimes moved and vocalised in unison, before splitting apart either to articulate individually or fall silent for a while. Above the stage, a screen showed a film paralleling the narrative, showing a woman roaming around her neighbourhood, simultaneously detached from everything and trying to make sense of her surroundings and herself within them.
Dressed in everyday clothes, the singers recounted, explained and described, singing, speaking and uttering, at best tapping into a remote form of desperate lyricism, elsewhere vocalising from a place where melody cannot exist, an apocalyptic place of broken language and haunted gasps. Bowler utilised this wide expressive continuum to elicit a complex soundworld, always in flux. The times when the music was at its most blank seemed at first almost too much to take, the singers getting stuck in vocal ruts, mirrored by the cellists, all flailing and robotically repetitive. Yet when vestiges of warmth returned (and it’s worth remembering here that blue is hotter than red), what they performed felt if anything more overwhelming: a ballad, a lament, a dirge, a requiem.
Style is practically irrelevant in such a dire context as this, and the experience of The Blue Woman felt less like a specific piece by a particular person than a work transcending composers and performers, a kind of timeless outpouring of disoriented desolation. Bowler’s woman thus becomes a kind of everywoman, testifying to a terrible truth in a way that, with quiet defiance, ignores any and all conventional trappings of operatic grandeur, pathos and tragedy. Bowler’s heroine has no name, yet she is also Butterfly, Carmen, Lulu, Lucia, Salome, Lucretia, and all other women, on and offstage, whose lives have been shattered by acts of violence.
i’m sure the audience upstairs went home from Madama Butterfly elated and happy; i’m equally sure i wasn’t the only one journeying home feeling utterly different. The Blue Woman is recitative and aria combined and contradicted, resonating with an intimate, agonised authenticity that the overblown drama of grand opera has been content to ignore or downplay. It is an essential corrective and counterpoint to the role, significance, impact and implications of violence towards women in opera.
Further performances of The Blue Woman will take place on 8 and 9 September in Snape Maltings as part of Festival of New 2022.