In Sydney Chamber Opera’s The Howling Girls, composer Damien Ricketson commands of Jane Sheldon’s celestial tone a considerable conversion. The unfamiliar sonic force created by Sheldon’s instrument, in what she describes as ‘deviant’ vocal performance, is emotionally charged, even shocking.
The prototype of operatic performance to which we are accustomed is equally unrecognisable. The Howling Girls sets an ensemble of young artists astir on a wide, deep, near-empty set. A denim-clad, backpack-wearing audience of under thirty-fives are amassed before them. Sheldon’s instrument inhales and exhales to undulating, grating effect, and the dark thematic crux of the production envelops us.
The Howling Girls’ creation was prompted by a slew of harrowing occurrences following September 11. Quite independently of each other, several girls appeared at hospitals across New York with the common idea that their throats were obstructed by debris from the attack.
Examining surgeons found no obstruction in any of the girls’ throats. Themes of paranoia, trepidation and debility are introduced in the initial belt of the performance with the ensemble, a band of monstrous, hardly-there figures, milling onstage.
An electronic cacophony circles the audience, who become lily-livered. People huddle and recede in the blackness. While injury, entrapment and agitation is embodied by Sheldon in a seemingly endless range of vocal possibilities, we are compelled to question the movement onstage. Is it really there? Are these convictions symptomatic of our own fear?
Director Adena Jacobs makes analogous our dilemma with that of the girls after September 11. Unrest among the audience is further concocted in the darkness by a low swooping in the sound-scape, unmistakably the plummeting of a plane.
The set brightens without warning in the most dramatic, frightening lighting change one can imagine. We meet the first certain visual aspects of the performance. Metaphors are done away with. Perhaps the blockages are imaginary, but pain, entrapment and terror are very much real.
In the final sections, we find ourselves caught in a web of words we endeavour to identify. The ensemble becomes bolder, hurling, what we discover to be, a made-up language across the theatre. The performers grow more and more insistent, the audience more helpless.
This acutely uncomfortable production establishes Sydney Chamber Opera as our local pupping ground for visionary operatic performance that seeks to enthrall by rearing thought.
The Howling Girls
Carriageworks, 245 Wilson Street, Eveleigh
Performance: Wednesday 28 March 2018
Image: The Howling Girls – photo by Zan Wimberley
Review: Sylvie Woods