Friday, March 30, 2018

Experimentally brave and inventive, Sydney Chamber Opera's The Howling Girls gives voice to trauma

A wordless work without narrative inspired by trauma you search for associations within as you wait for the unexpected or just simply absorb - Sydney Chamber Opera’s experimentally brave The Howling Girls, currently in performance at Bay 20 of Carriageworks, will get you talking.

Soprano Jane Sheldon in The Howling Girls
As the collaborative result of composer Damien Ricketson and director Adena Jacobs’ abstract and inventive approach, The Howling Girls sprouted from the true and bizarre story of five young women who presented themselves at a Manhattan hospital, throats constricted and unable to swallow, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre. And though convinced that debris had lodged in their throats, doctors found nothing.

Considering that opera’s focus is on the conveyance of thought and emotion via vocal musicality, this unusually libretto-less work runs against the grain yet manages to leave a powerful impression that highlights the vocal struggle to get there - in this case to communicate in the context of trauma, of collective grief and, through a sense of powerlessness, hysteria.

It begins in front of a shimmering black velvety curtain within a sleek white rectangular box frame. The lights dim to a blackness in which sight is taken away and given back to you in ever so slow a process - over what becomes half the work’s one hour duration - and illuminates something initially quite indistinguishable.

The first sounds to emanate are the quickening inhalations and exhalations that describe a sense of panic and the beginning of soprano Jane Sheldon’s remarkable agility, technique and stamina. The sound is close-mic’d, as part of Bob Scott’s encompassing sound design, to make it feel immediate and uncannily claustrophobic, amplifying every physiological aspect of vocalisation down to the sound of the throat moistening as it swallows to exhale. Ricketson’s first sounds come in the form of sporadic low-rumbling growls.

Teenagers from The House that Dan Built in The Growling Girls
Various vocal transformations occur, some reflecting the meditative chanting of Buddhist prayer, others a babble of vowel-like sounds in an ear-straining experience you hope to find a thread of coherence in. Eeriness pervades but it’s never frightening. During the slow-release of a single downlight the simplicity of Eugyeene Teh’s set design is revealed giving time to ponder Jacobs’ metaphorical tactic. I dare say, the rectangular white frame symbolises the mouth, the deep inky blackness the light-starved throat and the indistinguishable mass - what we realise later is a horizontal human form - the perceived debris that restricts verbal communication. And then, in a complete shock to the eyes as part of Jenny Hector’s startling lighting design, brightness reveals all as if to say there was no debris, just the psychological scarring its perceived presence causes.

Sheldon is joined by six talented teenage girls from the vocal ensemble, The House that Dan Built - Grace Campbell, Kittu Hoyne, Kiri Jenssen, Emily Pincock, Jayden Selvakumaraswamy, Sylvie Woodhouse. First appearing as demonising black long-haired creatures, then stripped to flesh-toned skins (costumes also by Eugyeene Teh), they exude the stereotyped dominance of masculine and vulnerability of the feminine. Sheldon appears in a gauze gown - armless, in a trance-like state and as proof of the voice we hear in negative territory. Voices integrate ethereally, hauntingly and perfectly piecing at times to expose the raw frequency of sound. Together with Ricketson’s underlying tense and misty soundscape - delivered by electroacoustic music and musical director Jack Symonds at theremin and keyboards - voice and music seem plasticised in an often indistinctive and compelling blend.

As a concept, The Howling Girls is experientially rewarding, highly visceral and sonically ingenious, captivating and intriguing in the way it has interpreted unimaginable trauma. Nonetheless, despite the many feelings it offers, you leave with little sense of emotional attachment, much like a doctor that performs his patient examination and prepares the cold diagnosis. The creative aspect of opera-making is always welcome - in this case you could say ‘opera installation’ - and, at the very least, The Howling Girls adds further depth and inspiration to the evolution of the art form.

The Howling Girls 
Sydney Chamber Opera
Bay 20, Carriageworks
Until 7th April, 2018

Production Photos: Zan Wimberley

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