It’s an every day occurrence…aging clarinet player stuck in a rut, goes on tour, has drunken one night stand with new young colleague…she refuses to have an abortion…wife leaves in disgust…the characters lament their plight…It’s an every day occurrence….
So goes the plot of David Heath’s new chamber opera, An Everyday Occurrence. Played by Mr McFall’s Chamber, an intriguing hybrid offshoot of the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and with three generally excellent soloists this was a musically fascinating premiere. Andrea Baker and Angela Tunstall's soprano pyrotechnics were particularly impressive. This was my first encounter with Heath’s music. It was lyrical with some exciting vocal setting, particularly in the final trio. I thought I heard echoes of both Sondheim and Gershwin.
Dramatically, it plays with theatrical convention, having singers playing musicians rise from within the orchestra and give us their stream of consciousness as they are performing. It also mocks stereotypes. There is an arrogant German conductor (played by Heath himself), who conducts almost entirely in 4/4, imitates a monkey to emphasise emotion and is really only interested in his fee. Even worse is the new Orchestral Manager who is preparing to fire several members of both choir and orchestra in order to preserve his excessively augmented management team as they prepare a major rebranding. The staging was simple but effective, particularly the use of a pair of ghastly striped sofas, only the moment of the one night stand failed to come off. The whole showed off the Queen’s Hall as a location for such performances.
The trouble comes with the main plot. As far as can be judged from the programme, Heath seems to have written his own text and for me it didn’t quite work, particularly in the spoken dialogue which is mostly all in rhyme. Sondheim is the clear echo here, and Heath, as a lyricist, is simply not in the same league. There is also a problem of story. Perhaps it’s deliberate – hence the title of the piece – but the characters seem rather one dimensional, and this is exacerbated by the pacing of the piece. It all happens too conveniently. We are introduced to the young wind player, Suzanne, with a lament about the fact that she has just had an abortion to try to hold on to her boyfriend. For her penultimate aria she sings to a TV screen displaying an ultrasound scan, promising to protect her new baby. That in particular felt almost like a sermon, although I may have read into it more than was there on account of a programme note about Heath's recent "profound religious experience".
The piece also had a problem dramatising interaction between the characters. When Suzanne tells John she’s pregnant, there is virtually no dialogue between them. When John’s wife, having discovered the affair, throws him out of the house, John is given no chance to respond. Perhaps this is intended as a dramatic device, illustrating the failure of communication but I did not find it effective. In consequence of the structure of the story and this problem of interaction I was increasingly less engaged with the characters' plight. The final trio, though musically intense and impressively performed, left me emotionally cold.
But these criticisms should not be taken to mean that you shouldn’t see the piece, which is repeated in Glasgow tomorrow night at the RSAMD. It is refreshing to see an attempt at a "slice of life" in opera and it is very well performed. It should also not be taken to mean that Heath is not an effective dramatic composer. I hope he writes more opera, but I hope he finds a librettist to join the collaboration.