Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival is an amazing opportunity for emerging opera companies and performers, giving valuable time and attention to bold and strange new works. But few pieces in the festival’s six-year history can have been bolder or stranger – or, quite possibly, better – than Size Zero Opera’s The Sandman, a brilliant and surreal creation which deserves more than the two performances it is receiving here.

Sian Cameron (Olympia) and Angharad Lyddon (Medieval Cow) © Fly Davis
Sian Cameron (Olympia) and Angharad Lyddon (Medieval Cow)
© Fly Davis

I think that roughly what happens is this. There is a girl called Olympia who drinks some weedkiller by mistake and has to go to hospital. She enters a sort of dream world which might not actually be a dream world, in which there is a Medieval Cow and later a Back To Front Policeman. The Medieval Cow cautions her against the sinister Sandman, but she eventually falls prey somewhat though not entirely to this dark character’s influence. Everyone else dies. I do not know why Isambard Kingdom Brunel was there too, but I am fully in favour of his inclusion because his first words were “I heart steam”.

There’s a case to be made that none of this makes any sense and is actually a bit stupid. It’s hard to refute this point - but the whole production was both written and realised with such quality that concerns like this drifted away, and the net result was nothing if not hugely enjoyable.

For starters, the music was – in three words – very, very good. Composed by Size Zero Opera’s founder – and, in this production, Mermaid 10 – Laura J. Bowler, the witty and amusing score was a rich smattering of harsh sounds, trippy instrumental techniques and hints of harmony. References to other styles were frequent as well, from what I think was a tango to a relentlessly faux-Baroque passage of imitative counterpoint. The music always followed the dramatic action of the piece quite clearly, and occasionally indulged in direct tone-painting – one such moment comprised the best musical approximation of a nose I have ever heard. The ensemble of three strings, three wind and percussion played meticulously, with conductor Jonathan Mann doing the score proud.

Bowler’s vocal writing was unforgiving and fragmentary – which, given the room’s boxy acoustic and an understandably loud band, had the effect of drawing me closely in to the libretto, written by Lavinia Murray. When audible, it was hilarious: the Doctor’s opening gambit of “I am a doctor. There are millions of us”; the explanation for the Medieval Cow secreting paint rather than milk (she’s not a real cow; she’s an illumination in a manuscript); the fact that while I had assumed the Cow was singing “Moo”, I think she was actually singing “Moon” for some reason. It’s not like the libretto made much sense of the story, but then I don’t think anything could have done so. The same can be said of the direction: Sophie Rashbrook apparently assumed the position of Director only two weeks ago, but it didn’t show at all. The set was designed by Fly Davis, with pot plants and novelty props galore.

All of the cast were up to the considerable challenges set to them: mezzo-soprano Sian Cameron was a lively Olympia, with a sort of Alice in Wonderland-style curiosity, especially in her exchanges with the wise figure of the Medieval Cow, alto Angharad Lyddon. Donna Gallagher seemed to relish playing the Nurse, with memorably enthusiastic cries of “Doctor!” in a ludicrous American twang. Christopher Jacklin was a compelling enough Isambard Kingdom Brunel that I believed he really did heart steam. The Sandman himself was countertenor Joseph Bolger, who has remarkable strength across his vocal range and excellent stage presence too.

While I wouldn’t try to sell this as a piece of theatre, or indeed as an opera if you take that word in its most traditional sense, The Sandman nonetheless demands to be seen. If it all still seems rather silly, then I haven’t done justice to the music, which shows that no story is too disjointed or random that it can’t be made to seem fascinating if told in the right way. If you can’t make the second performance tonight, please join me in clamouring for its return at a later date.