The case for Come Bargain With Uncanny Things as opera
Updated: Aug 7
I am, adamantly, a broad-definition ‘opera’ person. At one extreme, I’d certainly struggle to not class Les Miserables as an opera. At the other, I’d also class some quite extreme “screaming, running around, no obvious plot, occasional percussion and singing” as opera.
This might have been shaped by my time with Tête à Tête, a very broad church operatic organisation.
I’ve described my tools for improvised opera as such for as long as I’ve been working on them. They certainly start in opera.
But I’ve been told by some people that Come Bargain With Uncanny Things is not an opera; it’s gone too far beyond the horizon.
So, since nobody else is likely to, I’d like to write a defence of why Come Bargain With Uncanny Things is an opera, to my mind, while accepting that others might disagree.
I am going to reference Alexandra Coghlan’s review of the show, because it is an excellent work of criticism; to use Peter Brook’s terms, a good example of the “holy critic” who doesn’t merely praise or criticise based on personal taste, but one who offers definitions and a positive sense of what they'd like the artform to be… unlike some I could mention, where the not-opera-ing seemed to be based more in objection to its being promenade and interactive than in relation to a positive definition of opera.
So I hope that this disagreement is seen in the spirit it is meant - one of playful and respectful disagreement about something close to my heart, which I hope I can articulate with equal clarity.
Drama through song, not drama with song
This is the definition of opera Coghlan offers, and it’s certainly a common definition, and a useful rule of thumb. For my taste, however, it’s a little too Romantic, smelling of Wagner’s idea of the total work.
It’s a definition that comfortably embraces Les Miserables, but might sit less easily with:
- Singspiel (speaking and singing, as in The Magic Flute)
- Early French the-king-is-great operas
- Oscar Straus’ light operas
- A great deal of operas where the composer writes for voices like instruments
- Other operas where the librettist is clearly a playwright/novelist and whose words need nothing from the music
We would like to describe all as opera, but they are quite often first-the-drama, then-the-music-as-nice-icing.
At the other end, it struggles to swallow:
- Akhnaten, an opera with deliberately little drama, but a great deal of song
- The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, an opera where the music adamantly serves the politics, rather than the drama (which itself also serves the politics)
- Many composer-led conceptual works exploring music, with little interest in drama
That is to say: it is an excellent rule-of-thumb definition, spreading a fair way from its Romantic core. But since I have infinite words (rather than a tight word count), I can strive to highlight where opera can spread a fair way beyond it.
Is the music essential?
This is implied as part of the definition elsewhere in Coghlan’s review. I think it’s a very useful necessary-but-not-sufficient definition of opera which captures the examples above nicely.
[I shall not go further into defining opera, other than to say that a Weberian ideal type definition, where we list the things that might be present in a conceptually perfect example of the item, yet do not expect all of them to be present, seems most useful. An ideal type of a cat has four legs, fur, and a tail, yet a cat with an amputated leg, or born with no tail, or no fur is still a cat.]
The idea that the music of Come Bargain is not essential has been repeated elsewhere, most prominently in NoProscenium.
The resolution is not pre-planned music (that’s an absolute line; pre-planned ‘cutscenes’ in interactive work are immediately obvious, and make the audience feel they matter less).
Nor is it a guarantee of more musical variety (the meditative tone means a deeper exploration of one or two things, rather than Mozartian skipping between styles) or ensembles. Both are possible, but don’t always happen, depending on architecture and audience choices.
This is because of how the music works, and why it’s essential. It’s at the heart of characterisation and, above all, the world-we-relate-to.
To summarise: the music was tied to three motifs representing: how uncanny the world was at that time, the idea of being there to bargain, and the idea of community giving strength. Opera-folk will recognise the leitmotif-ish tools at work here.
And at every moment, the audience were being given information about the world. Even when discussing an entirely different topic, the world was present.
Why is this important?
No hero, no journey, our world
This is probably why I get a bit pernickety about “what is drama?”
Because Come Bargain With Uncanny Things is deliberately a show without conflict or a protagonist. I disagree that these are essential to drama, as I have written on before.
I am far more interested in Le Guin’s ideas of relationships outside conflict, and Noh’s idea of “in Western drama something happens; in Noh, someone happens.”
It is why Come Bargain With Uncanny Things was accurately accused of having no plot. Because it does not. Nor does it have a protagonist, or much conflict, unless the audience choose it. You might think that this means it is not drama, and that seems likely.
Because Come Bargain With Uncanny Things is really about its community in the whole. The ‘actor’ is the audience who (admittedly) do not sing. But the substance of that action is how they choose their relationship-with-the-world, from their response to people asking for help to how they treat the Uncanny Thing.
That is to say, the main relationship of the show is the audience to the world.
That world is present, constantly, via the music. The music serves the existence of the world, rather than individual characters’ invented drama.
This is where the singing is essential.
The main question of the show is “how should we relate to the Uncanny Thing (and thus our community and the world around us)?”, which every audience member has to grapple with.
The music is how they hear and feel the world respond to that.
If the chorus singing the storm in Rigoletto is still part of the opera, can the singers of Come Bargain, representing the the world, not be a part of ‘opera’ too?
Where characterisation happens
Each individual role had their way of presenting these motifs through their role. Will Davies’ Gabriel Erikson was often more patter-y than CN Lester’s lyrical Guildmaster McCall, for example.
You could hear their relationships shift in how they sounded together, and that was really exciting.
Yes, I’d like more rehearsal time to work on these things, while making the roles more archetypal, less people-ish; we prepared the show in three days.
But their music was there. And these character elements are not the essential thing.
How far can we go?
It’s been fun seeing opera people see Come Bargain. Many have been broadly sceptical about whether or not it’s opera, often on the grounds of its unconventional nature combined with the improvised music.
We didn’t have these questions with We Sing/I Sang, which was much more highly structured, sit-down-and-watch. Yet this iteration seems to have pushed it too far away from the music to be immediately accepted within the opera stable.
Being honest, I’d have been quite shocked if it had been. It’s definitely pushing the boat well beyond charted waters.
But if we’re asking whether the music is essential, I’d look to my interactive theatre audiences, who have broadly speaking been delighted.
Above all, being familiar with their side of the bargain, they see how much music is giving in terms of worldbuilding, and above all by making seemingly small choices matter by making each ritual magical - each moment magical.
This is new, and very much a different way of placing the music in the show.
Yet I think it is still an integral part of it. If I stripped away the music, I’d have an entirely hollow show, where the world and magic died.
But a final note, to those who have conceded that they had fun, and this ‘maybe not an opera’ could at least reach new audiences:
We’re not trying to make a nice piece of evangelism.
We are reaching new audiences.
But they’re my audiences.
If you want them, you’re going to have to follow me, rather than hoping we’ll try and convert someone who’s excited by the idea of living in the music, trying to make their imagined world better, to worshipping in the unwholesome tomb of opera for a long-dead king.