A Stirring Wordless Opera: Speechless

4 stars

Written in response to the 2014 Human Rights Commission report ‘The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention’, Cat Hope's Speechless is a prime example of the power, weight, and connection music provides in a world that is often divided.

Image courtesy of Perth Festival

Image courtesy of Perth Festival

The setting for this piece has a remarkable history. Formerly a public hospital, the Sunset Heritage Precinct was in medical use until 1995 and is now utilised for arts, cultural, and community activities. The show is set ‘in the round’ inside a large building, and makes excellent use of lighting, smoke, and sound effects to create an eerie and foreboding atmosphere.

The Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel New Music Ensemble, phenomenally conducted by Aaron Wyatt, are a clear highlight. Utilising low frequency sounds to communicate the sorrow of the thematic material is particularly gripping and perfectly complements the soaring soprano of a number of the soloists.

Sage Pbbbt is a force within this piece. Inspired by Tuvan and Mongolian overtone singing, Inuit throat singing, and sound poetry Pbbbt’s performance is a triumph—elevating the operatic sequences within the piece with her drastically unique and trance-like sound. The other soloists, Judith Dodsworth, Karina Utomo, and Caitlin Cassidy perform with grace and strength simultaneously; working successfully in unison to carry this beast of a show.

It’s not only the subject matter that makes this show such an enormous undertaking for its performers and creatives. Each choir member and soloist navigates some very intricate sequences and is expected to match the strength, volume, and impact the booming orchestra has throughout the piece.

One of the most remarkable aspects of Tura New Music’s work is in its focus on local community members. The choir of engaging back-up vocalists employ some fascinating stylistic practices (including improvisation and creative physical sound effects) that support the soloists’ portrayal of this dark aspect of Australia’s political and societal climate surrounding refugees and people seeking asylum.

Image courtesy of Paul Tadday

Image courtesy of Paul Tadday

Hope’s composition, the use of unusual stylistic devices, and the strong individual performances combine in Speechless to examine the trying existence of those living in detention across the world. The show succeeds in evoking great empathy amongst its audience.

This production is definitely not for the faint of heart. Its avant-garde style, heavy emotional impact, and difficult subject matter challenge audiences to not only observe some heavily topical sequences, but also interpret a great deal of meaning from a wordless vocal score that disrupts conventional expectations of words and melody.

Speechless succeeds, however, in narrating what is a very jarring and disheartening topic and as such proves a distinctively unique addition to this year’s formidable Perth Festival program.

Tickets available from the Perth Festival website.