Friday, 30 July 2021

Tête-à-Tête Opera Festival (1) – The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow (Acts I and II), 29 July 2021

The Cockpit Theatre, Marylebone

The Pure Ones, Acolytes of O’fela – Zoe Devlin
Momolow, High Preistess of O’fela – Susan Harriott
O’Fela, the Crocodile God – Oscar Dom Victor Castellino
Marquis de Sade – Phil Wilcox
Virgin Sacrifice, Justine, Marie Antoinette – Caroline Kennedy
Wizard Mystah Byegee – Jackson Scott

Eleanor Burke (director)
Seb Mayer (puppet maker)
Natasha Lawes (headdresses, wigs)

Darren Berry (narrator)
Eddie Giffney (piano).

Asking what is, or what is not, an opera is a fool’s errand, especially so when it comes to Tête-à-Tête. Ultimately, one probably has to conclude that an opera is anything someone, perhaps its creator(s), decides to call an opera. And yet that is obviously unsatisfactory. Hence we keep asking, as we do with music, drama, art, and so much else—all of which are generally held to combine under the heading ‘opera’. No wonder various people have rebelled against the term altogether, whereas still more have been attracted to it for reasons both close and distant.

Darren Berry’s The Crocodile of Old Kang Pow is certainly unusual, but there are many perfectly good reasons to consider it as such, not least his and Tête-à-Tête’s decision to do so. It has singing (live and filmed), other music (mostly recorded, but with live piano), acting (live and filmed), takes place in a theatre, and so on. As a ‘punk opera’, it has little connection, at least so far—we have only reached the end of the second act—with punk rock, though it perhaps has something in common with the elusive genre of ‘rock opera’, even with some of the work of Ken Russell. A mix of musical styles, from eighteenth-century pastiche and television accompaniment to Gospel, albeit with nothing one might consider modernist, let alone contemporary, suggests desire to be considered anarchic; so do combination with words (Berry’s own) and the words themselves (imbued, so it seems, with a schoolboy’s glee in regaling us with multiple slang terms for semen).

The first act, which takes us from pre-revolutionary Paris to ‘Old Kang Pow’, has much to entertain. Go expecting a successor work to Parsifal and you will doubtless be disappointed, perplexed, or something else, but then one might say that about many operas since. Nevertheless, diminishing returns, which had threatened to set in before the end of that act—a fun finale perhaps too extended—paved the way for a second act that, increasingly dubious racial stereotyping aside, actually turned a bit on the dull side. A fantasy of a secret, drug-induced (!) realm, in which the Marquis de Sade attempts to rediscover his libido in order to avoid execution at the command of Marie Antoinette, is doubtless not intended to be taken entirely seriously. Even with committed performances from all concerned—as ever, performers stand at the heart of a Tête-a-Tête production—there are probably limits to how long any particular member of the audience will remain engaged. I think I had reached mine, but a third act beckons for those who feel differently. And is that not always the case? Not everyone, after all, wants a Bühnenweihfestspiel; of those who do, nobody wants one every day.

Tête-à-Tête has much more to offer over the coming weeks; please consider lending your support, be that in the theatre or online.