Simon Steen-Andersen’s genre-bending opera Buenos Aires tackles fascinating questions about human communication and the very nature of human opera and music.

What is opera? What is song? How do we as humans communicate? What, even, is music? These questions are at the heart of Danish composer Simon Steen-Andersen’s new opera Buenos Aires. It is hardly a conventional piece, straddling multiple genres: opera blurring into spoken theatre blurring into performance art, defying any and all genre conventions. The piece especially seemed to focus on opera’s inherent absurdity of communicating through song, but these questions sadly got at least partly lost in a multitude of bizarre stage antics including toy accordions and electrolarynxes.

© Henrik Beck / Ultima
© Henrik Beck / Ultima
Buenos Aires opens in a recording studio. Four musicians are sat onstage with the record producers projected onto a wall on the back of the stage. A soprano, Johanna, enters; she has been engaged to record a jingle for an American talk show, but instead of actually recording, she engages in a lengthy discussion with one of the record producers about the merits of opera. The record producer finds opera odd due to the absurdity of communicating only through song, and says that he used to imagine the stories taking place on a strange planet with aliens who couldn’t speak properly, in order to make sense of the stories. When they finally get on to recording the jingle, the recording session is abruptly disrupted, and in the next scene Johanna seems to be put on trial. Exactly what her offense is, is unclear, but as the court case unfolds, she is accused of using her actual voice.

The other characters in the piece use various aids to speak, instead of just using their voices. Things like electrolarynxes (a little box placed on the neck in order to produce speech, used by people who have had their larynxes removed) and mouthing into an automatic bicycle pump were all used to speak. And indeed, it was mostly speaking that was done in this piece. The actual singing limited itself to the recording of the talk show jingle and a bizarre, increasingly demanding (on the singers and instrumentalists) rendition of the quartet from Rossini’s Mosè in Egitto. Not only were the singers forced to sing with their electrolarynxes and bicycle pumps, but ever greater demands were placed on the instrumentalists. Steen-Andersen, both composer and director, intervened and asked them to play in ever more difficult and taxing ways: the cellist had to play her part two octaves up on the lowest string, and the guitarist had to pluck on the fretboard wearing work gloves.

© Henrik Beck / Ultima
© Henrik Beck / Ultima
Once the novelty of hearing Rossini mouthed through the pressurised air stream of an automatic bicycle pump had worn off, it all began to make some semblance of sense. One of the key points Steen-Andersen seemed to want to make was how we as humans communicate. Throughout the opera, he devised different ways of distorting speech, be it through song, electrolarynxes or, as in the final scene, through pitch modification on a keyboard. It was apparent that he tried to complicate communication to the point just before unintelligibility, be that through speech or playing an instrument. Even though these different methods of communication made understanding more difficult, they were still intelligible.

Another point was regarding the very nature of song. There was very little “traditional” singing in the piece, but just as song involves distorting the voice from what it normally sounds like, the singers too distorted their voices, only using very unconventional tools. By calling this piece an opera, Steen-Andersen set out to challenge the definition of singing, and the genre itself more broadly.

Sadly, these points were often overshadowed by the bizarre happenings onstage, and even though the performance was riveting, I often found it difficult to take the work seriously. Still, this genre-defying piece proved very thought provoking indeed; what a shame the full impact was softened by Rossini sung through a bicycle pump.