If you think opera is dead, go to Battersea and you'll see just how wrong you are. Over the next two weeks, Battersea Arts Centre's annual festival of new opera, "The Works", will be subverting, reinventing, democratising and celebrating this 400 year-old art form through 13 different shows on such subjects as the male suicide epidemic, the oppression of the Zapatista, the agony of bereavement, caring for the terminally ill, and religious intolerance. Oh, and cross-dressing – that fine old staple of grand opera.
The first story heard at this year's festival (which opened last Tuesday) was that of Kylie, the chick-with-a-dick, who wanted to "share her guilty secret" in Kombat Opera's Jerry Springer the Opera; first showcased at BAC in May as How to Write an Opera about Jerry Springer, and now in its second and equally foul-mouthed semi-staged incarnation. Is it opera? Not quite, but it is operatic. Jerry Springer – now subtitled "Share your guilty secret" – has lost a little of its childlike charm over the last few months and gained some teenage pimples, but it's still a remarkably entertaining work. Forget your furs, your picnic baskets and your corporate hospitality. Trash your tiaras. Leave the limo behind. This is opera in the raw.
In its current expanded form Jerry Springer is a much harder work to pull off: the Howellsian invocations are more developed, and there are longer stretches of gospel-style chorus interjections. Composer Richard Thomas has been replaced by the urbane Rick Bland as Jerry, and there are three commercial breaks of madrigalian one-liners on trainers, cosmetic surgery, life-insurance, anti-depressants and God (in several denominations). There are also further trios and duets, much more in the way of back-story recitative, a surprise ending, and the calming presence of Steve the bouncer (Andrew Brooke). And then there are the songs: Kylie's ecstatic aria of self-esteem, "I'm a Man" (sung with sassy vivacity by countertenor Andrew Emerson), and aspiring lap-dancer Chantel's "I Just Wanna Dance" – one of those absurdly naked torch songs that you long to hear Streisand or Minelli tackle and pray that Patinkin won't get wind of. Thomas may flounder in the longer sections of recitative but he can write some outrageously beautiful melodies, albeit pitched rather LeGrand-ishly high for his singers.
Chantel (beautifully played and sung by soprano Adey Grummet) and Kylie are not the only "losers" to have their moments of dignity. Both cheaters and cheatees are treated remarkably kindly and democratically throughout the show – rather more so than the guests on the TV show – and so JSTO in its current form (complete with two Valkyries personifying Jerry's conscience) has become rather unbalanced. If Thomas has a failing, it's that he's too forgiving of his characters and too indulgent with their confessional music – which makes co-librettist Stuart Lee's moralistic grand guignol ending feel very tacked on. Diaper man (tenor Wills Morgan), though ridiculous, is allowed to get away with his destructive coprophiliac clowning, regardless of its impact on Zandra (mezzo Lucy Stevens). Only Chantel's nemeses, the embittered Irene (Stevens again) – whose mother-daughter duet with Chantel is astonishingly unpleasant and accurate – and the terrible Chucky (baritone Sam Newman), convey real menace. Perhaps this was a conscious decision on the part of Thomas to strengthen the impact of Irene and Chucky's confessions, but the deficit of darkness is a curious one in a show about a show about the underbelly of "the land of the free". It'll be interesting to see what happens next.
Composer and singer Andrew Gant's excellent 1999 a cappella treatment of May We Borrow Your Husband? is as bleak as Jerry Springer the Opera is blowzy. For a "sad little comedy", Graham Greene's story of deception and sexual frustration is surprisingly painful. Against the backdrop of a smart hotel on the French Riviera, the rigidity of 1960s Home Counties values casts a vice around the two young protagonists: an inexperienced honeymooning couple who fall prey to the bored lust of a couple of middle-aged interior decorators and attract the attention of an aging, misanthropic writer (part protagonist, part narrator). Gant's music displays a clear sense of British musical tradition, leaning sharply towards Britten and Tippett at times and veering away to something more audacious at others. Though he seems slightly addicted to (in my view) rather mannered angularity in his vocal lines, he has a naturalistic touch with conversational writing: the "mm?"s and "oh?"s of the (on stage) listeners serve as harmony and counterpoint, providing a surprisingly rich and varied supporting texture. Another clever idea is his use of coffee spoons, drumming fingers and tapping feet to provide percussion – in this case a subversive quasi-tango for the conversation between the wife (Anne Sheridan Jinks) and the writer (played by Gant himself). Of the five cast members, Gant is, ironically, too easily overwhelmed by his own invention. Sheridan Jinks, a warm and sympathetic soprano, is the epitimal "nice girl". Tenor Andrew Hewitt is also perfectly cast as her latent homosexual husband. But star turn is the fabulous Lawrence Zazzo (the younger decorator) – a searing counter-tenor with a brooding, muscular presence. Watch out, David Daniels.
'Jerry Springer the Opera': BAC, London SW11 (020 7223 2223) to 2 September; 'May We Borrow Your Husband' to WednesdayReuse content