The 2012 Tête à Tête opera festival is continuing on the bold course begun in 2007. Over halfway through its breathless 18-day schedule, it all seems as fresh as when it started. Its sixth season contains some typically outlandish operatic gems, most relatively brief in length. Plots have included physicists, sado-masochists, Mike the Headless Chicken and mermaids (not at the same time, of course).

Joby Burgess in Thrashing the Sea God, directed by Kally Lloyd-Jones © Claire Shovelton
Joby Burgess in Thrashing the Sea God, directed by Kally Lloyd-Jones
© Claire Shovelton

Amid this madness, John McLeod’s Thrashing the Sea God is notable for its originality and poignancy. Set in ancient China and composed for one person and a vast array of percussion, it stretches the definition of opera but does everything that a good opera should. A tragic story is told by a vulnerable, oddly beautiful character who is emotionally empowered through the music. It is a touching tale of a woman spurned when her husband leaves her for someone else. This bitter pill is made harder to swallow when the husband achieves the unrivalled honour of becoming First Scholar of China. As the broken couple made their initial love vows at the Temple of the Sea God, the protagonist cries out to him in agony – ‘O Sea God, why did you let it happen?’

The percussionist is required to sing – or rather, wail – five lines of Cantonese in between the symbolic thrashings of the Sea God through percussion. Dressed in a pastel green costume reminiscent of traditional Chinese dress, Joby Burgess cut an intriguing figure. He seemed completely inside his character, injecting his performance with emotion and sensitivity, with no inhibitions about performing as a distressed female, singing high up in his falsetto register.

Premièred in 2000 by another leading British percussionist, Colin Currie, McLeod refers to Thrashing the Sea God as ‘a little Chinese opera’. Indeed, it is little, but no less rich a work for it. And indeed, the roots of this work are firmly in the Chinese operatic tradition; the story and lead soprano role are drawn from Cantonese culture.

The array of percussion too is inspired by oriental musical heritage, creating a luscious texture of light, dark, pleasant and ominous sounds. Firstly, Burgess struck five small Peking opera gongs with expert sensitivity, making them seem to articulate a song of despair. The other four episodes achieved similar melodiousness; the vibraphone in particular was spine-chilling and the woodblocks, cowbells, Chinese and sizzle cymbals, bongos and congas at one station added up to a rich mixture of timbres. Burgess also made good use of the bell tree and mark tree’s contrasting effects.

Burgess appears as artistic director of Powerplant, New Noise and ensemblebash, but he is also one of the most in-demand individual percussionists, for example having premièred Gabriel Prokoviev’s Concerto for Bass Drum and Orchestra earlier this year. Consistently, his talent is to make drums sing. He makes percussion less implements to be hit and more harmonious instruments to be stroked into life. The range of sounds he coaxed from the five stations on this occasion was wonderfully unpredictable, captivating and imbued with constant momentum. Added to the musical success was a recurring dramatic motif of tearing up the sheet music after each orchestral episode – intended, presumably, to symbolise the protagonist’s hatred of the scholarship for which her departed husband has honoured.

The ending was simple but powerfully tragic. In silence, Burgess took up a knife, held it high and plunged it into his chest. Emerging from bent double, he drew a blood-red piece of fabric from inside his robe, drew it out, threw it behind him and appeared to die. Like the rest of the opera, it was dramatic, bittersweet, and enacted with finesse.