Spitalfields Winter Festival: Remember Me…A Desk Opera

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By Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace
, Updated 13th December 2013

Helen Wallace is left more than a little baffled by Claudia Molitor's work

Desk OperaPhoto: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan

Remember Me was inspired by Claudia Molitor’s discovery of her Grandmother’s writing desk, and her attendant realisation that this was the only space she could have called entirely her own. The idea of a creative world woven within the confines of this tiny space led her to the entrapment of opera’s tragic heroines, like Dido, left waiting for Aeneas, and Euridice, imprisoned for eternity in the Underworld. The wish that she might find a new story for them from within the desk is a beguiling one indeed; no wonder the event was sold out.

And beguiled we were by Molitor’s own gamine presence, robed in a Grecian tunic, welcoming small groups of listeners into her Rivington Place realm. The German composer (pictured above) is fascinated by the intersection between the arts, and – true to form – her control of the visual and sensual side of the presentation was as precise as her manipulation of sound. We were treated first to a film, projected onto silk, of the creases in the palm of her hand, a delightful invitation into the miniature, while rose-scented Turkish delight was offered and petals strewn around us. A microphone strapped to her hand magnified each of her movements into a fantastic array of sonorities, be it the peeling of sellotape, breaking of chalk or the satisfying tumult of baking beans pouring into the desk. 

A gritty electronic film track traced each cut of a blade as staves of music were revealed on the desk’s lid in a manic excavation. At last, the lid opened to reveal an illuminated world where ordinary objects – an ink pot, a book, a quill ­– assumed operatic roles and a stage setting. Primed, soothed, we were on the edge of our seats.

And then, in colloquial language, she described a scenario. Dido and Euridice were fed up – oh, and Cinderella had her own problems too. It was time for change….

Another film of dying roses and smashed eggs passed by before we heard faintly a recording of ‘When I am laid’ and were individually dismissed. The bathos was palpable.

No, I hadn’t expected a peg-doll Dido to enter stage right singing four octaves too high. But to have the entire story delivered in prosaic speech after every single sound had been curated to within an inch of its life was disorientating. After all the ‘showing’ we just got the ‘telling’ and were left aching for the promised opera. Perhaps that was the point: she was exploring the artifice upon which the very idea of opera hangs. But if it comes up on a festival programme again, be warned: this Desk Opera is more ‘desk’ than opera.

Remember Me… A Desk Opera was on at the Spitalfields Winter Festival. For more information, visit the Spitalfields Music website

Contributor profile

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace

Helen Wallace is consultant editor of BBC Music Magazine

Helen Wallace