My Faust Opera blog is for A Faustian Pack – three operas I am watching rehearse as part of a Criticism Now project of the Cultural Institute at Kings College London.
These operas will be put on simultaneously at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in April. Gounod’s Faust, a 19th-century French opera in the grandest style, will play in the Main House while two newly commissioned operas on Faustian themes in contemporary settings will play in the Linbury Theatre: The Crackle by Matthew Herbert and Through His Teeth by Luke Bedford with libretto by David Harrower.
The Crackle is going to be an extraordinary bit of theatre and sound. Its composer, appropriately for a Faust piece, is a sonic wizard: the sound artist Matthew Herbert .
I remember when studying philosophy in college (not well and pretty reluctantly) reading a chapter in a book by Peter Strawson called Individuals which imagined creatures for whom sound was the only medium of their bodies and lives. What sort of beings would they be and how would they describe things?
That’s the kind of world and kind of being which Matthew Herbert would relate to. He once composed a piece called One Pig for which he patterned the recordings he made of the entire life of a pig – from the squeals and grunts at its birth through to its slaughter, and then the sizzle on the plate, the munch of it as crispy bacon.
He reminds me of Jimi Hendrix, another sonic wizard, always experimenting with sound. In the army, at 18, he was jumping from parachutes as a ‘Screaming Eagle’ (such a clairvoyant title) and off duty he imitated on his guitar the squeal and rasp of the plane door opening before he jumped.
Peter Strawson was asking us to think about, and notice, how we relate to things – how we describe. This is what a good poem does too: ask you to see the world freshly. In Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Making Strange’, an alien perspective on what you are used to, or how you are used to describing things, “goes beyond what’s reliable”. It lets the reader see the world new. As Robert Frost said, poetry is ‘a fresh look, and a fresh listen’.
Matthew Herbert uses sound to ask us to think about and listen freshly to sounds we know, like sizzling bacon. His opera The Crackle is nothing to do with bacon: in it, the temptation Mephistopheles offers is the bewitching and potentially diabolical technology of electronic sound.
Matthew’s Faust is a music teacher called George. Part of George’s weakness is his belief that art matters more than the world, that “the show” is more important than what’s happening in Syria. This is Mephistopheles’ way in. The medium of the opera, electronic sound, is also the way the devil ensnares us.
Matthew is using an app called Chirp designed by a British company led by Patrick Bergel – which turns pictures on your mobile into sounds. He has also devised an extraordinary whirling dervish sound machine which appears in the children’s classroom, bewitches them and in the end, of course, turns out to be their doom.
Mephistopheles in Gounod’s Faust, on the Main Stage, will be sung by Bryn Terfel and is the centre of the opera. But in The Crackle, Mephistopheles never appears. You only hear him. The Opera House has engaged a foley artist. I’ve never heard of foley artists. That, The Crackle’s conductor Tim Murray tells me, is partly their point. You hear the sounds they make but you are never aware of them. In films, they create the clopping hoof-taps, gurgling taps, squeak of a door.
Opera, like Orpheus, draws all other art forms to itself. The foley artist Barnaby Smyth has worked on films like Resident Evil and We Need to Talk About Kevin. Now he’s going to drop the devil’s hollow footsteps and swish of his long black coat into The Crackle.
But Becs Andrews the designer has to sign off every visual thing on stage.
“Sorry to ask a boring make-up question,” she says. “The fancy dress the kids get to wear: do they come off before the blood gushes out? It affects what we make them out of. If blood is still dripping everywhere…”
“Will they be carrying the capsules in their mouths?” says someone.
“Then how can they sing?”
“What about their noses, their ears?”
“I’m not imagining loads of blood,” says Matthew. “Just enough to know they’ve died.”
No Faust opera ends well.