When is an opera not an opera? Some would answer this question with “when it’s a musical”, but such a response says more about our own preconceptions of what opera and musical theatre represent than it does about the works themselves. Greek is certainly not a musical, but nor is it really an opera; and to even discuss it in these strictly categorised terms would be to limit its potential as a genre-bending piece of music-drama. But how could anything different come from the pen of a composer who at one time agreed with Boulez’s call to burn down the world’s opera houses? Turnage’s first operatic utterance simultaneously engages with and subverts operatic traditions, and by doing so catapults the medium into the 20th Century with such force that it is still engaging and fresh 25 years on.

© Clive Barda
© Clive Barda

Greek, based on Steven Berkoff’s play of the same name, is a rather strange updating of the Oedipus story, moving the action into London’s East End, a far cry from the world of fairy-tales, far off lands, and ancient history that most operas inhabit. Our modern day Oedipus, Eddy (Marcus Farnsworth), leaves his parents after a fortune teller tells them that he’s destined to kill his father and sleep with his mother. He winds up in a cafe where he kills the owner and marries the waitress, only to discover that his so-called parents weren’t his real parents at all and that his new wife is in fact his birth mother, thus proving the fortuneteller right. In spite of the historical upheaval the actual events of Eddy’s life parallel those of Oedipus’ remarkably faithfully. What is most significantly changed are the motives behind those events: Eddy’s original parents don’t try to have him killed because of a prophecy, but simply lose him; Eddy leaves his adopted parents, not to spare them the fulfilment of the fortune teller’s prophecy, but to escape his imprisonment in working class pub culture; Eddy’s mother/wife sees him kill her husband, but still marries him. It is this change of motives which most successfully brings the story to bear relevance to our own lives. Child abduction, the imprisonment of a classed society, and women falling for dangerous men are all things which we see and experience everyday, either in our own lives or through our scaremongering media.

But it is not just the adaptation of the plot which brings this opera up to date. Berkoff’s blend of lofty prose with East End slang is mirrored by Turnage’s mixture of the 20th century classical style of Britten, Berg and Knussen with jazz, rock and roll and pop music. The use of football rattles and riot shields as percussion gives the whole work a very earthy feel and an engaging theatricality, while echoes of stadium chants and “My Old Man’s a Dustman” give the music a directness without turning it into a collage of outward references. But in spite of his previous sentiments about opera houses Turnage clearly knows and understands the medium he’s ostensibly working in. There’s a lament from the waitress for her dead husband, shortly followed by a love duet for the same waitress and Eddy, her husband’s killer. Perhaps the most moving moment in the whole work is Eddy’s mad-scene at the end of act two, which is clearly indebted to Britten’s Peter Grimes and the long tradition of operatic mad-scenes, but also has a parallel in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd.

At the same time the theatrical style owes much to Brecht’s “epic theatre”, with every aspect pared down and minimalistic. Aside from Eddy the other three singers all represent multiple characters through the use of exaggerated cartoonish characterisations and rapid (often on-stage) costume changes. Michael McCarthy’s direction combines physical theatre with circus spectacle and does so without perverting the work itself; all the action on stage comments on and adds to the musicodramatic whole. The orchestra are placed on-stage, behind the small acting space, and their visible presence gives a sense of this being something of an anti-opera. The whole visual aspect of the production lacks the polish of most professional operas, and I don’t mean that as a fault. In fact, the grittiness seems to match perfectly the world that Eddy inhabits and distances this from more traditional opera. To do it any other way would seem like an apology.

The orchestra of Music Theatre Wales brought out the crisp edges of Turnage’s engaging score, and (even though they were dressed in black tie) they added theatrically to them by reacting to the action on stage. The singing and acting from the four accomplished singers was first-rate, with especially touching moments from Louise Winter as Eddy’s wife/birth-mother and an a vicious, spitting duet for the two sopranos as the (somewhat anachronistic) sphinx. As Eddy, Marcus Farnsworth gave an accomplished and characterful performance of this taxing role, capturing all the conflicting emotions of the role and moving the audience along with him.

In spite of its age, Greek shows us everything that contemporary opera can and should be doing. It feels real, and in spite of its foundation in classical mythology it deals with a number of contemporary issues in British society. The relationship between man and the earth, the ugly face of patriotism, the social imprisonment imposed by a classed society, the roles of women in family life; Greek passes comment on all these things and though it rarely pauses long enough to explore the depths of these issues it combines them to produce an image of a flawed Britain, where social plague is so common-place as to go unquestioned. Music Theatre Wales’ simple but excellent production allows the piece to speak for itself, while the use of contemporary physical theatre make it even more in your face than Turnage’s music or Berkoff’s language already do. If ever there was proof that opera is very much alive Greek is it and MTW’s production is a must for opera fans everywhere.