A couple of weeks ago I wrote a preview for Peepshow which opened last night at Campbell House. Summarizing crudely, the idea was to present a show that broke down some of the barriers of formality that make the opera house intimidating and so open up the genre to a different kind of audience. So did Peepshow do that? The answer has to be “to some extent”. There were four shows in four rooms and in an ideal world they would have each played at intervals throughout the evening and people would have been able to drop in and out as they chose. The geography of Campbell House simply doesn’t make that possible. It’s a 19th century house with stairs and corridors and fairly small rooms with mostly “do not touch” furniture. Each room will only hold a dozen, in a couple of cases perhaps twenty people, in comfort levels ranging from OK to excruciating. This means that audience members must be assigned to specific performances, rounded up and herded to their allotted place at the right time; or as close to it as possible as it always takes longer to herd an opera audience than anyone imagines. And no drinks in the performance rooms. Once in, for an admittedly only fifteen minute show, you are as stuck as in a performance of Parsifal at Bayreuth. In other words, rather than a fluid experience it’s a series of chunks of more or less traditional concert hall broken up by some socializing at the bar.
When the show itself also engages with the intent and breaks down traditional barriers between performers and audience this doesn’t matter much. When the show replicates a concert hall structure it’s more problematic. Of the four shows, the most succcessful on these terms was Liederwölfe’s presentation of opera hits. The Barcarolle from Tales of Hoffman, an aria from Street Scene and the Libiamo from La Traviata were staged around and through the audience, standing in the middle of a largish, sparsely furnished room. It felt immersive and involving with palpable energy in the room.
Two other shows were performance pieces. re:Naissance presented Shakespeare re:Imagined in the dining room. There were chairs enough for most of the audience and the intensely acted combination of Shakespeare’s words and songs accompanied on the lute was very effective. I saw the Ophelia piece. At other times one might have caught Juliet or Lady Macbeth. Christine Duncan’s show Boots was similar in concept with spoken word and singing accompanied by percussion. The show was about her obsession with footwear and was quite amusing. The problem here was the room, most of it taken up by a large bed where most of the performance took place. Trying to find a half way comfortable place to stand or sit was a real problem. I failed. 15 minutes of extreme discomfort didn’t help my enjoyment of the show.
The fourth show was put on by Essential Opera. Although the pre-show billing had suggested excerpts from their female themed show She’s the One, we actually got a different version of Opera’s Greatest Hits. Here the schtick was that each singer (or pair of singers) was carrying an emoticon and the audience got to choose who sang based on the emoticon. Katja chose the one that looked like a duck which turned out to represent the final duet from Eugene Onegin. This is where I have a problem. The singers were fine, in fact very good, but a long, loud, duet in Russian sung, score in hand, in a small room, is probably exactly what most non opera goers fear. There was no context, no introduction, no surtitles. If I hadn’t known what it was I would have had no idea what I was listening to. Frankly I didn’t with the third piece offered; apparently from Massenet’s Werther. Why?
I still think the concept’s a promising one and, overall, I enjoyed the show. It’s unfortunate that economics forced it into a less than ideal venue (albeit one that sat cheekily across the road from the COC’s Carmen) and it would have helped if everybody had been as in synch with the concept as Liederwölfe.
Peepshow plays again tonight and tomorrow night at Campbell House.