City opera project: A walk-on role

The project aims to make the City more environmentally aware. Jonathan Brown treads the Square Mile
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The Independent Culture

The suited figure in the back of the Range Rover Sport vehicle speaks animatedly into his mobile phone as his chauffeur threads his way through the grinding traffic. It is an everyday scene in the City of London. But today an insistent voice urges me to cast a more critical eye over what is going on. "If you look closely," says the voice in the headphones, "you can see the geology of other countries disappearing. The petroleum resources of Azerbaijan from beneath the Caspian Sea turning into gas." We are, she says, breathing in the "toxic excrement" of the Gulf of Mexico, Iraq and Nigeria.

Running a finger along a ledge of an office building, the black dust confirms the dirty truth of her words.

This is one of the welcome coincidences that the creators of a new opera believe will get people living and working in the Square Mile - the centre of Britain's "carbon web" - to take the threat of global warming seriously.

But the 70-minute piece, entitled And While London Burns, is unlike anything currently being performed in Covent Garden. This is an interactive opera for one: part love story, part hard-hitting polemic, part walking tour that uses the streets and alleyways of the City, its buildings, institutions and its personnel as its backdrop. "We are trying to encourage people who don't know the City to take a look but we are also trying to get people who do know the City to look again at what goes on here," says James Marriott, who along with John Jordan co-wrote the libretto for the environmental arts organisation Platform.

"It is a virtual experience but also a real one. In some respects it is like being a character in a film. The listener has to put themselves in the hands of the narrator. She has control over you but unlike other art forms, where everything that happens is intentional, unexpected things can occur which adds to the experience of the listener and to what we are trying to say."

He hopes workers will download the three-act work from a dedicated website on to their MP3 players, perhaps employing their lunch hours to explore the relationship between the finance houses, big oil and climate change.

The narrative takes the form of a part love, part suicide note from an emotionally tortured oil and gas share trader to his former fiancée, a one-time insurance analyst. The couple met at a disaster seminar held at the Gherkin, one of London's most celebrated skyscrapers, finding love amid the talk of floods and hurricanes and the prospect of financial meltdown.

But after a brief engagement, she turns her back on the rat race, the threat of global warming and him, retreating to the solitude and safety of a Cornish cliff top.

Set to the haunting music of French composer Isa Suarez, the unnamed protagonist is left alone, rendered, literally, impotent by the pollution he has helped create, resigned to brood on his failure to act against the carbon menace.

Narrated by Douglas Hodge, star of the film Scenes of a Sexual Nature, the adventure begins at the headquarters of dealers who control billions of pounds of British Petroleum shares. His odyssey takes him past the dealing rooms of offices of some of the biggest names in the City - Deutsche Bank, Swiss Re and the Royal Bank of Scotland, which are taking millions in profit from the carbon economy.

Musing on his failures, he takes the listener with him as he wanders from the Roman ruins of the Temple of Mithras to the gilded dining rooms of the present day, where financiers dine.

His journey ends with a breathless descent to the river, to the "line of flooding" - the point at which scientists say the waters of the Thames will rise if global warming continues unchecked. But the protagonist enjoys an unlikely and elevating redemption at one of the capital's best known landmarks.

"We were trying to find a way that deals with the issues surrounding global warming and carbon emissions but in a way that makes you feel something for it, something other than fear that is," said Marriott. But that is not to say the piece is not melancholic, he points out. One of the first people to experience the opera was reduced to tears. "The point is he doesn't give up," he said.

The opera can be downloaded at