A terminally damaged world set in the future, but like the one we live in now was the setting for Zinnie Harris’ 2009 Edinburgh Fringe play. This 35-minute opera condensed the story and gave composer John Harris an opportunity to explore the boundaries between speech and singing. Because trained opera singers are taught to sing in a particular way, John Harris wanted to use singing actors to capture a more authentic vocal crossover. The husband-and-wife team also wanted to use the medium of opera to heighten the emotion of this simple, bleak but strangely compelling story.

The Garden
The Garden

The Garden was first performed as part of the Sound festival in the north-east of Scotland last year, in the site-specific location of someone’s front room, the small audience squeezing in round the players. For this more conventional Edinburgh Fringe setting in Godfrey Thomson Hall, the claustrophobic conditions were recreated as far as possible, with benches and seats packed round the room-sized performing space, the audience within touching distance of the players.

In a kitchen, there was a Formica table with gate-leg extension and a box for some food and drink. The electricity and water supply was intermittent, and there was no fridge. The world’s temperature had risen, and it was hot: green plants had vanished in this broken world. Singing actors Pauline Knowles and Alan McHugh played the couple Jane and Mac; she, dressed in a sweat-stained top and denim skirt offered her husband a warm beer as he returned from his scientific work on “The Project”, a collection of boffins trying to find a solution for a planet in atrophy under a mysterious but powerful man called Manning, whom we never meet.

Jane and Mac discover a tiny plant trying to grow up through the linoleum, and destroy it as a weed. Later, Jane finds a much bigger plant in the same place, and although she identifies it as an apple tree, not knowing what to do, she destroys this too – seeds of hope gone forever, like the couple’s stillborn baby girl a few years ago. When Mac returns with news of his promotion to The Project sub-committee and some wine to celebrate, it eventually becomes clear that even after seven years’ work, the scientists are fighting a losing battle. There will be no salvation. In a grim final tableau, the couple find it easier to face oblivion through a combination of lethal quantities of Jane’s depression pills, washed down with wine, in an ultimate reconnection with each other. There was gentle humour too: as they waited for the end, Jane asked if they should make love. Amusing for a moment, but then actually a question many in a similar desperate situation might well ask.

John Harris played his music live using a vintage Yamaha DX-7 synthesizer and computer-triggered samples. In the enclosed space, his continuous soundscape was gently menacing, but became more melodic as the couple argued over the significance of their tiny tree of hope. Speech and everyday singing soon became interchangeable, yet this strange mix allowed us to gauge the already broken relationship between Jane and Mac.

It was a tale well told, with the actors possibly more at ease in a tight performance area than opera singers might have been. Both actors have been in a wealth of straight theatre productions in Scotland, but it was really interesting to see Alan McHugh, familiar to many in Christmas pantomime, getting his teeth into something much more serious.

Chamber opera is a medium ripe for pushing boundaries, and this short piece got the story, and the emotions across successfully. More innovative thinking employed crowdfunding to take this from the Tête à Tête festival in London, via the Edinburgh Fringe, to the Move Op! Festival at the Neuköllner Oper in Berlin.