Oral tradition and opera

Nicole Brook’s Obeah Opera is described as a “Nicole Brooks vision” which is probably a good starting point for an opera this isn’t.  It’s an a capella stage piece with an all female cast, composed and taught to the performers orally and performed with mikes.  If it resembles anything it’s a musical but really it’s a unique concept.  It’s also clearly rooted in the oral traditions of African-American slavery and a kind of idealisation of the world they had left behind.  For example, every slave women is a powerful sorceress from a long lineage rather as every Welshman is a gentleman who can trace his ancestry from King Arthur.  It’s a musically rich and powerful tradition and this forms much the most effective element in the piece, especially as it’s where Brooks’ own talents and energy are most focussed.

Divine Brown, Deidrey Francois, Singing Sandra, Karen Burthwright, Nickeshia Garrick

Divine Brown, Deidrey Francois, Singing Sandra, Karen Burthwright, Nickeshia Garrick

This element of slave women as powerful magicians and healers is then projected onto the Salem witch scare of 1691-2.  It’s not an obvious fit.  The “witches” accused, tried and executed in that, one of the last outbreaks of witch hysteria in New England, were with one exception, white.  The exception is Tituba, the name of Brooks’ character in Obeah Opera.     She was the first to confess but in exactly the terms demanded by Puritan divines; i.e. no hint of traditional African magic, religion or healing.  She also wasn’t African.  Carol Karlsen(1) suggest she was a Carib, other sources suggest one of the New England native peoples.  Does this matter any more than, say, Puccini’s China bears little relationship to any actual historic China?  I think so.  Not because it’s “wrong” in some sense to place Brooks’ story in colonial New England but because I think it goes some way to explaining why it doesn’t really work.  It feels like Brooks is fixated on a central idea that however much she manipulates the story around it just doesn’t quite fit.  Anybody who has ever had a great idea for a story that just doesn’t quite work will know this feeling.

Nicole Brooks, Singing Sandra

Nicole Brooks, Singing Sandra

To be fair the portrayal of the Puritans has come a long way since I saw this piece in workshop last year.  The musical idiom is more appropriate and they get moments when they seem more like people and less like cartoon characters.  That said there are truly cringeworthy moments.  There’s a passage towards the end when the witches have been condemned where the Puritans march around singing “A-gibetting we will go” (curiously with a hard “g”).  It’s truly a WTF moment.  And, unfortunately, it’s not the only one.  To make matters worse, fleshing out the Puritans has also substantially lengthened the piece.

rPm Obeah Opera 2015-1151The central “African” elements of the piece are done very well though.  Brooks is powerful as is Singing Sandra as The Elder, the central cult god/spirit or whatever.  They get great support from the high energy singing and dancing of Saphire Demitro, Nickeshia Garrick, Debbie Nicholls-Skerrit, Karen Burthwright, Divine Brown and Melissa Noventa.

Coming out of this I felt curiously like I did after Apocalypsis (though less ear battered).  It had a similar combination of some good ideas, some powerful moments, at times utterly banal text and some things that just plain perplexed all, apparently, justified because the central creative force has an official pedestal.  It’s not a combination that works especially well for me but funders with deep pockets seem to lap it up.

Obeah Opera is being staged at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts nas part of Panamania.  There are two more performances today and tomorrow.

FN1: Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman, New York, 1987

7 thoughts on “Oral tradition and opera

  1. It’s a shame that such an interesting idea resulted in such an ultimately disappointing (and, it would seem, strangely wayward in historical terms) piece. I think opera *could* be a great medium for speculative exploration of suppressed narratives, though…

  2. Y’know, expecting historical accuracy from *any* operatic piece is… I don’t know, was that ever a thing? Opera is a form is famously factually / historically inaccurate, *especially* when it’s seemingly *about* an historical event.

    I saw this work in one of its early incarnations, and I wasn’t really after a history lesson. I took it as a work of a more mythical nature — as lots of operas are; as perhaps a clash of two visions of the world, or two religions? Or perhaps not even that; as it’s an all-woman cast, perhaps it’s on to something entirely different? Or perhaps it’s about the ur animistic, pagan spirit permeating all creatures, how we accommodate it, work around it, with and against it? I think Brooks & comp. are free to invent a tradition as much as they like to. And what better space for that is there than the Gesamtkunstwerk.

    And I’m absolutely fine with their calling it an opera. It’s a roomy form that can accommodate all kinds of extremely different approaches. I don’t really mind that it doesn’t have a score, or that it’s strategically miked, or that it’s a cappella. I’ve seen a lot of works called opera that satisfy those formal requirements that are not as half as engaging as Obeah.

    • I don’t think the problem is historical accuracy per se. I too saw this work in its 2014 incarnation and my reaction was that it was promising but the as soon as it got beyond the mythical/magical oral tradition stuff and into the world of the the Puritans it was didactic and dealing with cardboard cutouts. In this version they are much more fleshed out (albeit sometimes in a really cringeworthy way) and it still doesn’t work. I really think there’s a structural problem of trying to hang the Obeah idea on the New England peg and it just won’t go. I thought about it a lot. I’ve had a couple of times when I’ve been working on a story where the central idea is really important to me but it just doesn’t work in the narrative framework I associate it with. There just doesn’t seem to be a way of fixing that. And, go on, I dare you find any justification for having anyone marching round singing “A gibetting we will go”!

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