For most of us, the word ‘experimental’ probably provokes images of brass instruments filled with washing-up liquid or electrically manipulated sneezing sounds. But experimental doesn’t have to mean mental: it can simply refer to something original, something done differently. Open Door Opera’s staged song recital Americana was an excellent example of an experimental production in which no faecal matter was thrown, and everyone (just about) kept their clothes on. The resulting experience was one of enriched aesthetic interest, in which the experiment enhanced, rather than inhibited, the music. And in a pub, too.

Rebecca Dale
Rebecca Dale

The King’s Head Theatre’s small stage was bedecked with a baby grand piano, a cello, an old trunk, a newspaper and a broom, which soprano Rebecca Dale grabbed upon entry. Dressed as a cleaner, Dale swept as she sang the spiritual ‘Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen’, arranged by pianist Sarah Latto. Dale’s very beautiful, opera-trained, vibrato-heavy voice was a little much for such a simple, soulful song, especially in this small space. That said, the song’s emotional power was communicated, particularly given its coupling with the timeless task of sweeping the floor. It led seamlessly into the first set of Copland’s Old American Songs, familiar tunes that epitomise old, honest American ways and dreams. Copland’s arrangements are successful in their simplicity, from a country ragtime of The Boatmen’s Dance to the peaceful, one-chord-per-bar plodding of Long Time Ago. Again, the volume level was the only problem: Latto’s accompaniment was on the heavy-handed side. ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’, which followed, was far subtler than when sung at Twickenham, but rousing all the same.

Things got juicier for Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs. The mystery trunk was opened, and out came a cape: a magic cape, which transformed our cleaner into the Hermit. Barber’s music was the most ‘arty’ so far: a heavy ostinato in the piano infused At Saint Patrick’s Purgatory with drama; Church Bell at Night mixed fruity chords with piano fragments; The Heavenly Banquet was an excited wish-list of ingredients required for a feast with God; and lush clashes in the piano featured in the delightful joke song The Monk and his Cat. The Cleaner came to her senses as she was in the process of caressing her imaginary feline friend and realised she was petting household spray. Whipping off the cape, and taking up the broom again, Dale’s earlier assertiveness was transformed into intimate quietness for the folksong ‘O Shenandoah’ and the lullaby ‘All the pretty little horses’. Here Dale showed what was lacking before: sweet softness and sensitivity. Latto’s movement centre stage, strumming a simple acoustic guitar accompaniment, made both songs exquisitely personal and truly moving.

Returning with cellist Daniel Edwards for part two, in a bright pin-on dress topped with an eccentric hat, broom in hand like a mic stand, Dale cut a Fitzgeraldian figure for an imposing Summertime. The ‘imagination box’ lay open. As Dale changed out of the dress and into half a suit jacket and a white elbow-length glove, a change in music heralded a psychological twist to the proceedings: the pulsating rhythms and saturated arpeggios of two of Philip Glass’s Songs from Liquid Days inserted an excited, manic energy previously absent. The Cleaner’s psychological descent continued through ‘Freezing’ to ‘Forgetting’, for which Dale stripped right down to her undergarments, and whose repeated block chords created a crushing tension.

This tension was only heightened by the ensuing pair of John Cage songs: the evening’s dramatic apex, and most successful experiment. As the Cage began, the lights were completely extinguished; Dale donned a headtorch and retreated into the corner of the room. In the haunting torchlight, the glottal utterances and free rhythmic piano-case tapping of A Flower proved an incredible effect: trapped in the cage of her imagination, Dale performed A Flower, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and Charles Ives’ mysterious The Cage with masterly drama and technique. Redemption from this solipsistic nightmare was on hand, and it was to the tangible relief of everyone in the theatre that the familiar melody and wonderful text of ‘Amazing Grace’ saw the lights up and The Cleaner back to her old, soulful self. Pandora’s Box was closed, and all seemed to be heading for a simple, beautiful end to this musico-psychic examination – would that it had!

Alas, instead of this wholesome ending, a backward glance and the cheesy strains of André Previn’s Vocalise resulted in a contortionist stunt as Dale climbed into the trunk. This was a real disappointment to me: all the hard work had been done in creating such a fascinating, thought-provoking and truly excellent concert, which took both performer and audience on a journey there and back again. But the pull of the post-modern was irresistible, and all this ending did was put itself in a box.