‘Scenes from the End’ by British composer Jonathan Woolgar is a one-woman opera focusing on grief in a variety of forms, from the abstract to the deeply personal, from the philosophical to the everyday. It explores big ideas – the notion of “the end” and what it might mean at different times and in different forms – concepts far bigger and complex than our individual comprehension can easily grasp or make sense of; and the frustration of the individual in a state of grief, surrounded by people whose prosaic or patronising attempts at offering “comfort” merely compound one’s sense of loss and anger.
Heloise Werner is a young soprano and cellist with a particular interest in new music and music as drama. She is co-director of contemporary ensemble The Hermes Experiment and a member of new vocal ensemble SHARDS. ‘Scenes from the End’ developed from previous collaborations with Jonathan Woolgar and Heloise’s interest in exploring the boundaries between theatre and singing, and how that might work in a one-woman show.
Each of its three parts has a specific musical and textural focus. The first part explores grief for the end of the universe, a concept so vast we cannot possibly understand nor process it. The second part grieves for the human species and explores the arrogance of humankind (“We have done well, but we forgot to survive“), and, to my mind at least, offers a comment on our reckless plundering of the earth’s resources and man’s seemingly insatiable need to wage war on others. The final part grieves for an individual life, the pain of personal grief and the griever’s frustration at those around her who seem unable to respond appropriately (“Do not speak to me……but, stay with me“).
Sparsely staged, with only a chair and stool as props, the work has an immediacy which is arresting and very powerful. Heloise’s voice has a piercing clarity and depth, one moment beautiful, the next visceral and freighted with distress. The sung episodes are interspersed with spoken words (whispered, shouted), and gasping and panting, which calls to mind the gulping sobs of a grieving person who almost cannot cry any more. There are also recorded episodes, Heloise’s voice heard hauntingly from a distance, and percussion. Quotations are projected onto a screen which inform and expand on the narrative. The work is direct and thought-provoking with a raw intimacy enhanced by the simple staging and small size of the venue: one is close enough to see the broad range of emotions passing across Heloise’s face as she performs.
While the performance unfolded, the sounds of Hampstead Road filtered into the theatre – people talking, the rumble of traffic, a police or ambulance siren – reminding us, perhaps appropriately, that human life in all its humdrum and everyday continues.
‘Scenes from the End’ is at Tristan Bates Theatre, London WC2 from 6-10 December 2016.