If someone expresses worries about the future of operatic composition, an encounter with Philip Venables’ extraordinary 4.48 Psychosis should be more than reassuring. Premiered in 2016, commissioned by The Royal Opera and the Guildhall School of Music, revived in London in 2018, the work was presented in New York under the aegis of PROTOTYPE – a 7 years old festival dedicated to new music-theatre works – and the Baruch Center for Performing Arts.

Gweneth-Ann Rand © Paula Court
Gweneth-Ann Rand
© Paula Court

Venables’ starting point was Sarah Kane’s play with the same title (the author believed that 4:48 in the morning was the time of reckoning when her mind could bring form to her darkest thoughts). A bitter and fluid meditation on the nature of depression and the futility of psychiatric treatments, friendship and life in general, 4.48 Psychosis was Kane final work, completed before taking her own life in 1999 at the age of 28.

Venables and director Ted Huffman didn’t add anything and made very little cuts to a text full of lyrical elements with bursts of anger and flashes of dark humor. Kane’s play doesn’t specify the number of characters, has no speech cues and minimal stage directions. It allows interpreters to mold it in many different ways. Here, the scenography (Hannah Clark) is very simple: a white box (a waiting room?) with several doors, a table and chairs repeatedly moved around. There is no ceiling so the public can see the orchestra sitting in the rear, on the top of the box. The creators of the opera decided to use six singers (three sopranos and three mezzos) to represent Kane’s inner voices, a soprano (a clear-toned Gweneth-Ann Rand) being assigned the main role and a mezzo (Lucy Schaufer) that of the hated psychiatrist. All six are dressed the same: jeans, gray cardigans, sport shoes.

Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer © Paula Court
Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer
© Paula Court

One has the clear impression that music was hidden in Kane’s play, like a statue in a block of marble, and Venables just had to bring it out. The composer is the first to acknowledge it: “Whenever I got stuck writing the music, I just went back to the play and it was all there.” It doesn’t mean at all that his methods, helping transform the abstract (pain, anger, hopelessness, the perceived lack of love) into the concrete were simplistic. On the contrary. There is a wealth of acoustic and visual components that constantly overlap and interact, from background Muzak to a saw cutting through wood to numbers popping on the white wall. The accompanying Contemporaneous ensemble, expertly conducted by William Cole, included strings, flute and piano but also three saxophones, an accordion and a synthesizer. Venables' music itself is occasionally an island of peace in the overall chaos. It can be crafty and is eclectic. One can discern direct quotes (Bach) or references to Moses und Aron or Wozzeck (in the use of Sprechstimme). Voices – real and pre-recorded – can be heard speaking, singing, shouting, whispering. Individual arias are rare, most of the 24 tableaux being polyphonic ensemble scenes with one initial voice quickly interrupted by the chorus of the others. The most extraordinary of all these artistic devices is used in connection with the imaginary dialogue between doctor and patient. Two percussionists (Clara Warnaar and Amy Graphic), placed at the two ends of the orchestral space, punctuate, syllable by syllable, the utterances projected on the white wall. It’s a very effective and impressive way to underline the pain, the alienation.

<i>4.48 Psychosis</i> © Paula Court
4.48 Psychosis
© Paula Court

Wrapping Kane’s text into music, Venables adda an extra layer of meaning that the observer needs to traverse. Apparently, he neither overplayed nor de-emphasized the desperation, the cruelness described in what is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of suicide note. But one should ask: is Venables’ endeavor – taking advantage of music being better than words at invoking emotions – a deception? Think about Lodovico Settembrini, Thomas Mann’s character from The Magic Mountain, and his quote regarding the “dangerous”, intoxicating power of music, removing listeners from reality and objectivity. Aren’t the conscious and conceptual means employed in the pure text, in Keane’s logos, sufficient or even better suited to impart her tragedy to us?