Imagine that Britney Spears is in the final throes of life. She stages one last concert to bid farewell to her fans, but is too mentally unstable to make it work. Her former lover Justin Timberlake appears onstage and attempts to win back her affections. Everything happens in slow motion, perhaps because Britney is undergoing a sort of psychotic breakdown. Eventually gaining some dim awareness of the spectacle she is creating, Britney attempts to break free from the stage, rejects Justin, and wanders trance-like into the audience, perhaps essentially dead.

Lucy Cronin and Josh Bevan in Timberbrit
Lucy Cronin and Josh Bevan in Timberbrit

Now imagine that none of this is actually happening, except in the context of an opera. Also, you’re in a converted factory in Peckham.

That’s pretty much how I spent my Friday evening last week, attending the UK première performance of American composer Jacob Cooper’s bold, odd piece Timberbrit, at an opera/clubnight put on by exciting new opera-hipsters Carmen Elektra. This was an evening which made Krzysztof Penderecki look like Brahms, and the Old Vic Tunnels like Wigmore Hall.

Timberbrit itself was the most aurally abrasive, aggressive, unloveable piece of music I have ever heard. It apparently took various songs by the two featured pop stars, and slowed them down digitally beyond recognition. Massively amplified sounds resulting from this process formed the meat of the instrumentalists’ parts, and the singers sang at a slowed-down pace, quite accurately approximating the sort of horrible mess of elongated vowels you do in fact get when you slow singing down. I had diligently positioned myself near the front of the keen, confused crowd, to make sure I could see what was going on. The next morning, two Ibruprofens later, my eardrums did not thank me.

The piece was certainly daring and original, and a considerable and arguably important exploration of the truly dark underbelly of modern pop. I was hugely impressed by the performances, especially of lead pair Josh Bevan and Lucy Cronin, whose portrayal of a mentally deranged superstar was startling and disconcertingly convincing. However, I also kind of hated it, as one may rightfully hate things which induce slight nausea.

The evening also included two other, smaller-scale operatic performances in the bar downstairs: Here [in circles] by Michael van der Aa, and Kate Whitley’s new work 0520. The issue with these pieces was that they basically seemed to get in the way of the party vibe that had successfully been created. Hearing one of the singers imploring the well-meaning crowd to be quiet and listen to the start of 0520 was a sad thing indeed: you have to ask what anyone really expected from a performance in a bar. Surely, the whole point of this sort of evening is to re-contextualise classical music; to prove that it doesn’t require the sort of arbritrary elitism that concert halls tend to foster. But if the aim is to prove that classical music can work in a bar, then it also has to prove that it can work with high levels of background noise and an audience who will continue to talk to each other and get drunk. The point is to change classical music, not what happens in bars.

Timberbrit was also slightly oddly placed in the evening. The whole point of this piece, as I understood it at any rate, was to provide a searing and angry commentary on contemporary pop culture, and to point to something genuinely sinister lurking within it. But here, it occurred in the context of an indie clubnight, replete with loud DJ sets and cans of Red Stripe. In other words, while the evening was pointing towards pop culture, the opera was gesturing away from it, and I came out of the performance wondering whether I was actually meant to have enjoyed myself in the bar earlier on, or whether perhaps it was all part of some elaborate ironic trapping.

It’s certainly an exciting time in London for contemporary opera. The number of new, young companies is through the roof, and each seems to have a completely different vision of what opera is meant to be in the 21st century. They’re not all going to get it right every time, and it seems that in order to keep up with it all we’re occasionally going to have to spend half an hour wandering around Peckham waving an iPod Touch about trying to figure out where to go. It’s worth it, though, because experiments are interesting and need to be given time. I’ll be there at Carmen Elektra’s next outing. Standing slightly further back.

**111