Loneliness is the ultimate modern malaise: our disconnected society is continuously fractured by the digital world, where people ‘socialise’ through machines while living, and dying, increasingly alone. However, much of our isolation today is a result of choice, a lack of social impulse nurtured by an imaginary, easily accessible universe at our fingertips. In 1963, Robert Silverberg published To See The Invisible Man, a dystopian short story in which an individual is punished for “the crime of coldness” by a judicially enforced loneliness.

Nicholas Morris (The Invisible) © Stephen Cummiskey
Nicholas Morris (The Invisible)
© Stephen Cummiskey

Proclaimed Invisible for a year, he wanders through “the world of warmth”, banned from all human contact. His ‘invisibility’ allows him to become an uninvited, unheeded spectator on a world in which human interaction, however meaningless, is spookily enforced and regulated: but as he grows increasingly hungry for a look or word of acknowledgement, the people he watches repeat the same banal conversations endlessly in a hysterical attempt to look ‘connected’. Ultimately, everyone in this opera is alone in their own private hell, a beautiful pastel-perfect world of cactus gardens and cupcake stalls, with shiny white plastic interiors for homes and brothels at once futuristic and clinical, designed by Ana Inés Jaberes-Pita. Her costumes similarly speak of a Sixties vision of the future, all smooth lines, modest shapes and tasteful colours, while the Invisible’s clothes become filthier and more tattered as the year progresses.

Silverberg’s original short story is extended, giving us additional arenas for deconstructing social expectation: with the Invisible’s family in a home riven with breathless anxiety, and in court, where the Judge cross-examines in incomprehensible Latin. Dan Ayling’s production, opening the Aldeburgh Festival, feels intensely poised: the hypocrisy on stage points to the fake intimacy of platforms like Instagram, where posed, filtered photographs purport to reflect real emotional life. It also speaks of our treatment of the homeless: so many well-dressed people walk down freshly swept streets in our richest cities, determinedly ignoring the aching need which begs from the pavement, utterly disenfranchised in plain sight of society.

Nicholas Morris, Peter Savidge, Anne Mason and Caryl Hughes © Stephen Cummiskey
Nicholas Morris, Peter Savidge, Anne Mason and Caryl Hughes
© Stephen Cummiskey

While this production is strong and vibrant, Emily Howard’s opera itself is strong medicine, and can feel long. A key development is Howard’s decision to voice the role of the Invisible by both a baritone and a soprano, intending to show a dual inner dialogue in which the male and female elements of his psyche have a voice, while he uses only his male voice in public. However, this leads to immediate confusion on stage: the impression is of two separate Invisibles – one male, one female – particularly as they eventually interact (and are listed individually). This, for me, diminished the true isolation of the Invisible (Nicholas Morris), as he was rarely on stage alone in his predicament for long, and vocally his male line was often overshadowed by the jawdropping, super-modern pyrotechnics lavished on his soprano counterpart, Anna Dennis. Howard aims “to create hugely contrasting types of music that interact with each other in unexpected ways”; she does this both at a micro and macro level. Punishing lines for her male Invisible flick across octaves from one note to the next, creating a hysterical, near sobbing sound, only slightly less difficult to listen to than it must be to perform; and the score as a whole surges from screams, bangs and aggressive dissonance to lyrical touches of what might be Dowland, and harmonic colours taken from Mozart resolving into direct quoting of “Soave il vento” (Così fan tutte). Howard confidently and consistently makes her music run hot and cold, and it’s a discomfiting, intriguing listen.

Anna Dennis (The Other Invisible) © Stephen Cummiskey
Anna Dennis (The Other Invisible)
© Stephen Cummiskey

Birmingham Contemporary Music Group did not shy away from the score’s harshest moments in a performance of unhesitating determination, conducted by Richard Baker. One brilliant effect had a drum stuttering angrily and dangerously, like a trapped bird in a box, as the Invisible awaited trial in a cell, over notes which fleetingly reminded me of Billy Budd’s 34 Interview Chords; however, this scene soon felt overextended, as did the Brothel scene, which established a clear idea (synthesised, soulless intimacy for sale, whether feather-tickling or ball gags) only to re-emphasise it, uselessly, twice over. This is where pace drags; the Ground Hog Day conversations serve an important narrative purpose, but these atmospheric scenes need editing.

Apart from Anna Dennis’ heartstopping soprano power, the finest performances came from the smaller roles. Caryl Hughes, as a thrillingly clear-voiced Sister, was a bright stage presence. Daniel Norman made a memorable cactus fanatic, commanding centre stage with his powerful tenor enthusing over the long Latin name of his favourite plant. Nathan Vale’s flexible, immediate tenor and finely detailed performance across four roles was equally eyecatching. Anna Mason and Peter Savidge, as the Invisible’s parents and in numerous other roles, each exuded charisma but felt more dramatically settled in song than in speech. Altogether, a determinedly demanding listen; but ambitious, experimental, and leaving us plenty to ponder.

****1