Turnage’s ‘Greek’ Shows It All (Plus Maggots) At BAM

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A scene from Mark-Anthony Turnage’s ‘Greek’ at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. (Photos by Richard Termine)
By Anne E. Johnson

BROOKLYN ‒ It was a tenet of ancient Greek drama that particularly graphic plot points were never shown onstage but only described. In Mark-Anthony Turnage’s hilarious and horrifying opera Greek, with a libretto by Steven Berkoff based on his 1980 play by the same name, you get to see and hear everything. And nothing, in a way. Also, there are live maggots.

Acting as strong as his singing: Alex Otterburn as Eddy.

The 80-minute opera, originally premiered in 1988, is currently making audiences squeamish at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Gilman Opera House as part of the 2018 Next Wave Festival, in a co-presentation by Scottish Opera and Opera Ventures. This production is directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins. I saw it on Dec. 5, opening night of a five-day run.

The premise is this: Eddy (tenor Alex Otterburn, whose acting was as strong as his singing) is tired of the provincialism of his little town, so he bids his parents adieu and heads for London. Before he goes, his dad tells him of a curse he’d heard from a gypsy that Eddy would kill his own father and “bunk up with his mum.” A plague, in the form of societal unrest, has taken over the land, and Eddy is swept up in a police riot. He gets in a fight and accidentally kills the owner of the café where he takes refuge, but then comforts the widow and falls in love with her. You’ll never guess whose mum she really is!

Four singers handled all the roles, with that repetitive inevitability echoed in the set by Johannes Schütz ‒ a plain, two-doored wall on a spindle, and white on both sides. Not only was this a metaphor for how Eddy can’t really change his circumstances or escape his fate, but it also allowed for striking noir lighting effects by Matthew Richardson and astounding video design by Dick Straker.

Much of the video was created live at a workstation, with maggots, surrounded by a short plexiglass wall.

Which brings us to the maggots. Much of the video was created live at a workstation surrounded by a short plexiglass wall. Descriptions of pestilence and violence, for example, were illustrated not by the characters physically interacting but by whichever singer was not onstage squirting baked beans and ketchup (and, yes, squirmy little maggots) onto a table, to be magnified a thousand-fold on the white backdrop. The fight that kills Eddy’s biological father at his diner had the singers separated by several feet describing their injuries while slices of tomato and globs of yogurt splashed into a puddle of spilled coffee the width of the stage.

‘Greek,’ with a libretto by Steven Berkoff, is at once hilarious and horrifying.

As important to the storytelling as the set and projections were the costumes, and especially wigs, by Alex Lowde. The exaggerated ʼ80s clothing and hairstyles helped to broaden the comedy and distinguish the characters quickly as singers moved from one to another. And the angular, stylized body movements designed by choreographer Jenny Ogilvie also contributed greatly to the humor and mood.

Berkoff’s deconstruction of the Oedipus tale included plenty of f-bombs and slang. Turnage takes full advantage of those linguistic patterns; for example, the opening scene finds Eddy at a pub where the patrons repeat common phrases like “Leave off,” “‘Allo, luv,” ” ʼEre we go,” and ‒ the audience favorite ‒ “Arsenal!” Soprano Susan Bullock and baritone Andrew Shore, as Eddy’s adoptive mum and dad, plus various other characters, both had musical-comedy voices and a flair for showmanship; they even got to do a grimly funny musical-hall number, complete with jazz hands and follow spots, as they sang about the plague.

While all the other elements of Sophocles’ story are translated into the world of 1980s Britain, somehow there is still a Sphinx in this version, waiting outside the city, whom Eddy must kill in order to clear up the plague ‒ only to be told that he is its cause. The inclusion of a fantastical creature didn’t make much sense in this updated context, but it did allow for some of the most compelling music in the opera.

Allison Cook and Alex Otterburn play strange lovers.

Bullock and mezzo-soprano Allison Cook, dressed in form-fitting black clothing and gravity-defying wigs, shared the role of the Sphinx, sometimes showing their dual selves and sometimes hidden behind a single mask. Berkoff turns the scene into a cheer for feminism (threatening or empowering, depending on your point of view), with the Sphinx representing all of womanhood and declaring men useless. Turnage has created a frightening duet complete with the sounds of spitting with disdain.

Cook pulled off the most shocking dramatic scene, as Eddy’s wife. In a beautiful but unsettling aria that would have been unthinkable to Sophocles, she sings about how much she loves sex with Eddy ‒ performed while crawling all over him ‒ even as the audience is fully aware that she’s actually his mum. Turnage uses large, dissonant leaps to call out the discomfort most humans feel at the thought of incest. There’s an interesting moment, after all is revealed, when the characters try to convince themselves that, in this modern world, incest doesn’t really matter. Oh, but it does. “Love is love” only goes so far, and the guilt is inescapable for poor Eddy.

As funny as the opera is, it is also moving, a testament both to Turnage’s musical range and the skills of the performers. Shore was heartbreaking as he finally admitted, much too late, that he and his wife had adopted Eddy. Donizetti’s Lucia in her bloody nightgown has nothing on the mostly a cappella mad scene sung by Eddy before he gouges out his eyes in shame. Otterburn took us with him into insanity.

Stuart Stratford conducted soloists from The Orchestra of Scottish Opera in a precise and energetic performance. The score uses few strings: no violins, one viola, three cellos, and a double bass. Emphasis is on percussion, both to express angst and to underscore a scene’s ridiculousness. Mostly it was played by Jay Allen and Ruari Donaldson, but the other orchestra members contributed stomps and claps and the clicking wood of cello bows. Turnage writes especially effectively for French horn (bringing to mind Britten’s similar skill) and clarinet.

Greek continues at BAM through Dec. 9. For tickets and information, go here.

Although there are no plans yet for it to come to the U.S., Turnage’s newest opera, Coraline, based on the beloved Neil Gaiman children’s novel, is scheduled for April 2019 performances in Saarbrücken and dates to be announced by co-producers Folkoperan in Stockholm and Victorian Opera in Melbourne.

Anne E. Johnson is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Her arts journalism has appeared in The New York Times, Classical Voice North America, Chicago On the Aisle, and Copper: The Journal of Music and Audio. For many years she taught music history and theory in the Extension Division of Mannes School of Music.