There can’t be many winners of the Mercury Music Prize who could play London’s Royal Opera House and finish the show with the entire audience on their feet shouting “Bravo!” as if the curtains had just come down on La Bohème. But this was hardly your average gig. Besides, the Opera House’s grandness certainly provides the perfect backdrop for Hegarty’s otherworldly tales of sorrow.
Originally commissioned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, Swanlights is billed as “a meditation on light, nature and femininity” and features songs from all four of Hegarty’s albums. Accompanied by the 60-strong Britten Sinfonia, the performance also includes layered screen projections, with lights and lasers of ever-changing colours pulsating, flashing and exploding around the stage.
At the centre of it all is Hegarty, draped in a simple white gown, mostly standing still. His voice is the performance here; that achingly beautiful androgynous croon. With the orchestra behind him his voice dances and soars; it is completely effortless.
From the opening song, “Rapture”, it is clear that the orchestra’s accompaniment is going to heighten every nuance heard on record. “For Today I Am a Boy” is typically heart-wrenching. For “Another World”, Hegarty holds his arms aloft while pink light flutters over his face and he sings goodbye to the world. A cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love”, originally a sassy tribute to a lover, becomes a pained tale of obsession under Hegarty’s reworking.
Throughout the performance different screens are lifted, slowly revealing more and more of the singer and his surroundings. When finally everything is there to see, the orchestra included, the soaring strings of “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy” wash over the audience and fills the room with heartache. There’s a juxtaposition between the beginning of the show, with all its darkness and secrecy, to the exploding, bright finale. The lights almost become fireworks as Hegarty sings, “I am very happy/ So please hit me” on the crescendoing “Cripple and the Starfish”.
“I’m so relieved when it’s done”, he laughs after the main part of the show is over. He still has a couple more songs and launches into “Salt Silver Oxygen” and “The Crying Light”. This time, though, there’s a smile on his face. He even dances a little. And it fills your heart that someone who can sing so astonishingly of loss and loneliness can also have a bit of fun.