Without wishing to sound too much like Matthew Arnold (in his flawed, yet seminal “On the Modern Element in Literature”), I have always felt there was something profoundly modern about Hogarth. Perhaps it's because he stood outside his peers, criticising the world around him for its immoralities and hypocrisies, a historian in his own moment. Hogarth's art is both irreverent and deadly serious; moralising, and worldly. It was no surprise to me, therefore, that today's students at the Royal College of Music can find a rich seam of inspiration in his work, producing five short new operas, each one a modern reaction to a different Hogarth image (or series). But the unexpected delight of this evening was the sheer quality of these short works, musically, visually and dramatically: each distinctly different, but all full of excellence and imagination.

On False Perspective © Fiona Clarke
On False Perspective
© Fiona Clarke

For each opera, the relevant Hogarth image was projected above the stage (above the surtitles), as well as being printed in the programme, giving us an immediate chance to make connections and see parallels, literal or lateral. On False Perspective got us off to a strong start, with a playful and intelligent concept coruscating with so many different 'perspectives': architectural, social, facial, physical; even magic tricks and falling dreams are harnessed to Benjamin Osborn's ends. His libretto was refreshingly conversational, mimicking student speech perfectly with all its grammatical tics and hiccups, as well as being profoundly intelligent, full of delightful allusions and puns. I particularly liked “Inside was a mess of sound and light” - a perfect description of an underground rave - and “The idea leaves its mark on the brain, like a shadow, like an echo, like a stain”. Josephine Stephenson's music was full of elegant and atmospheric strings, made eerie with lustrous woodwind. The vocal line was always beautifully drawn, though the orchestration did occasionally threaten to overpower it.

Meanwhile, we were treated to an amazing visual spectacle as the Hogarthian characters invaded the stage, turning the sleepy, hungover café into a blinding neon rave scene. Inhabiting a world somewhere between surrealism and hallucinogenic drugs, On False Perspective describes brilliantly the part-magical, part-unsettling atmosphere of the morning after a rave, when tiredness (and other things) can play tricks on the mind, cleverly bringing ideas of 18th century and 21st century excess together. Amid much strong singing, Jerome Knox's Professor stood out with wonderful sonorous tone, while Rebecca Hardwick delivered her role as the raver with conviction and panache - even while crowdsurfing! Katie Coventry and Keith Pun made a delightfully shy pair of unrequited lovers, while Nick Pritchard was a wry and philosophical Barista.

The cafe converted smoothly into a street scene for The Bet, in which a charming friend, a fabulous tramp, a delightfully smarmy tempter, a fallen woman and a charitable old biddy all become sucked into a game of the tempter's making: proving how greed can corrupt any passing stranger. This was a fun, surreal, creative piece with well-characterised performances and interesting dialogue. The character of the tempter was particularly intriguing for me: is he the Devil, or not? Algirdas Kraunatis' libretto and music worked well, creating a unique world in which the (timeless) proposition of the plot flourished.

After a rave and a street scene, where could we go next but a futuristic dystopia? Now opened in the dark to jangling bells, flashing lights, and impassioned voices all over the auditorium rising in a clamour of crossing arguments: an exciting, atmospheric start in which a city was facing a sudden shutdown due to imminent political overthrow. Lewis Murphy's music seemed well-developed and articulate; beautiful swelling sounds from piano and strings, shot through with sparkling bells. Laura Attridge's libretto created interesting characters and situations, although in so short a space of time, they could only be developed so far; this could well be extended into a larger work. Still, as we watched the trapped characters waiting for their world to change, we were intrigued and emotionally involved throughout.

Hogarth's Bastards © Fiona Clarke
Hogarth's Bastards
© Fiona Clarke

Amid so much good work, I am ashamed to admit to favouritism, but I'm afraid Hogarth's Bastards was for me the downright winner (were it a competition). From its comic opening line, “One more horrible night of this deplorable show”, to its reflective, mysteriously ruminative ending, this foul-mouthed and gloriously funny piece had me entirely at its mercy. Hunter Coblentz's playfully broody, swaggering music and Jordan O'Connor's acid libretto were brilliantly paired, and casting Don Giovanni as a countertenor (the marvellous Tai Oney) was comic genius. A delightfully vituperative piece, which saw the cast of Don Giovanni in the dressing room as they discussed rude reviews, blaming each other and descending from insults into, finally, violence, this was simply a joy from start to finish. Simon Grange's gorgeous bass voice as the Commendatore was a treat, as was all the singing. Craig Jackson's endlessly erudite Don Ottavio drove Gemma Summerfield's Donna Anna mad with frustration, with hilarious consequences; and Rannveig Káradóttir's dramatic entrance on a Boris Bike caused an uproar of laughter. Slick, polished and totally together, this lithe and irreverent cast made the most of a brilliant idea, at the same time discussing several questions fundamental to opera, including the impact of criticism on singers, the nature of performance, and the attitude needed to succeed in the cut-throat world of showbusiness. Fast-paced, fierce, funny: I would go anywhere to see this again.

The final work, Serpentine, incorporated lots of wonderful dance and choreography, including some fabulous costumes covered in LEDs. Inspired by Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty, this was an accordingly highly-aestheticised piece, with stylised, mannered characterisation and perhaps more situation than plot, but committed performances from all the cast kept it tense and interesting. Edwin Hillier's music sounded the most deliberately modern of the evening, with shrieking, whistling harmonies drawn out over long phrases like yawns of pain, creating an unsettling and odd musical world, immediately atmospheric and atonal. It made a rather cold contrast to the warm human comedy which had gone before, but the sinuous grace of the choreography (as all the dancers rolled themselves in and out of the Serpentine Line) was endlessly lovely to watch. Altogether, an evening bristling with good ideas, skilful execution, and excellent singing, and resoundingly positive for the future of opera as an art form with relevance and vitality for the modern age - ours, or any modern age you like, Matthew.