Review and Interview: Siren Song

ANNA SHEINMAN is full of praise. That should be enough, ‘you are all going to go and see it yourselves this evening. Aren’t you?’

Alex Lass Edinburgh Fringe Herald Angel Award Jack Furness Louise Kemeny Rosslyn Chapel Shadwell Opera St Mary's Church

ANNA SHEINMAN reviewed the opening night on Friday… 

Friday 7th and Sunday 9th May, at Great St Mary’s Church, Tickets £5 for students.

For once, a production boasting “innovative staging” actually lived up to its promise. Given collapsible binoculars (amazing feat of engineering, just, wow) and pointed towards a narrow staircase, we climbed into the bowels of the grand Great St Mary’s church. Up past the vicars office, through the cassock room, past piles of choir books, to … ok, I’m Jewish, forgive me here: you know those pews that are really high up? Like, above your heads, on the sides. Yeah, there. The audience in one set of these pews, we looked across the chasm (aka the rest of the church) that held the orchestra, to the other side.

Before us unfolded a charming modern opera, telling the age old tale of two lovers who are not meant to be. Gwilym Bowen’s geeky looks and simple, strong voice made him the perfect choice for guileless, sweet Davey, a man literally and figuratively all at sea. He places an advert for a pen pal in the Navy News. And so enters his life, the exquisitely beautiful, adorable, and seemingly equally naive Diana (Louise Kemeny). With lines as delightful as “I like chocolate, I like shopping, I like suntan oil”, as they send each other sweet nothings, ship to shore, we watch them fall quickly in love. I mean, super, duper quickly. 

The plot runs like life, sometimes lingering on a moment (a particularly racy dream sequence), other times cantering along (it’s love, a house, a joint account). The production uses the separate areas created by rows of pews and columns simply and effectively to move the action from Davey’s boat, to England and further abroad. Originally in danger of drifting away on the romance, we are periodically dragged back to the 1990s with refrains such as “Let’s go to Comet! Centre of the appliance universe”, “I want to fuck you to death” and “I think he’s a queer”.

The tale turned sour, as it always does. I knew that it had got under my skin when I found myself silently begging that what was becoming gradually clearer was going to happen, would not. I shan’t tell you what it was, because it will ruin it, and you are all going to go and see it yourselves this evening.  Aren't you?

The unfussy and repetitive libretto, instead of being boring, allowed the story to remain at the forefront, the words (almost always) clear. A soothing baseline and some perky percussion kept the whole thing running smoothly. And they needed all the help they could get, because the lighting was terrible. A school choir used the church before hand and clearly mucked around with the lights, because a couple of scenes were in complete darkness. First night glitches.  

The only other fault I can think of is Louise Kemeny: she just didn’t spend enough time on stage. Her voice is enthralling, rich and sweet.  It genuinely sent chills down my spine when she hit those top notes (which, incidentally, she did with poise and ease). I could feel the audience warm every time she began to sing. The extremely competent leading duo, backed by a solid supporting cast (and might I add, their conductor Finn Downie Dear is a complete hero) and a rock solid plot made it a very relaxing experience.

I knew when they kissed there would be chemistry, when they sang it would be note perfect and I was extremely happy to sit back in my pew and let the music take me away.


The Tab had a chat with Jack Furness and Alex Lass, directors of the Shadwell Opera who in August 2009, they won a Herald Angel Award at the Edinburgh Fringe for their production of The Magic Flute in Rosslyn Chapel…

What is the purpose of Shadwell Opera? "It’s about proving that opera doesn’t have to be just about fat people singing impenetrable songs in foreign languages. It can be completely sex drenched and youthful…We want to perform operas in English so that people can understand the drama, so that they can see that opera doesn’t have to be elitist, it doesn’t have to be expensive, and it doesn’t have to be bad drama." 

Why did you choose to put on Siren Song? "Having put on Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, we wanted to do something more contemporary. It’s a great story, and definitely the sort of plot you wouldn’t usually associate with an opera.  It’s emphatically not about someone dying of T.B. for four hours."

You seem to have a fetish for performing in churches – why Great St. Mary’s? "People are rarely allowed up into the galleries, so we decided to use them… Also, we’re going to let the audience move around to change their sightlines, so that they can transform the space too. Because the opposing galleries create a great void between the audience and the stage, we decided to bridge it with binoculars for every member of the audience, which has nautical resonance, but is also reminiscent of traditional opera glasses."

Do you agree that translation ruins an opera?  "Definitely not. An opera is no good unless people understand it."

What does the future hold for Shadwell Opera?  "We’re going back to Edinburgh this year with A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Magic Flute, and we’re organising a tour with Britten’s Albert Herring for July 2011, and possibly a tour to Washington and New York at some point. But we’ll be around in Cambridge next year, so watch this space!"