Scenes from the End
Héloïse Werner, soprano
Jonathan Woolgar, composer, Emily Burns, director
Camden Fringe 2016
Camden People’s Theatre 11 August 2016
The image of opera as a posh frocks and picnics event at places like Glyndebourne has long since been shattered; not by the paired-down touring companies that pander to the country house set during the summer months, but by the wealth of small scale innovative opera companies working on new scores in smaller, more approachable spaces. One example of the latter is ‘Scenes from the End’, an extraordinary one-woman performance piece about grief, developed and performed by soprano Héloïse Werner. Working with composer Jonathan Woolgar (who also wrote the text), Werner’s 45 minute piece explores themes of grief and death in a compelling combination of music, theatre, spoken word, projection and recorded sound.
Performed during the Camden Fringe in the tiny (and noisy) black-box Camden People’s Theatre, this was opera at its most intimate. With only a chair, a stool, a (silent) microphone stand and an alarm clock as props, and two beaten sticks and a tiny cymbal as the only accompaniment, the entire focus is on Héloïse and her reaction to the situations developed in the text. Jonathan Woolgar’s imaginative music and text responds to this challenge well. There are three parts: grief for end of the universe, grief for the end of the human species, and grief for the end of an individual life, each theme indicated by projections onto a rear screen.
The powerful opening wordless vocal declamation; an almost painfully loud operatic voice at full pitch interspersed with the manic banging of little sticks, was a powerful statement of elemental power. As the word ‘Oblivian’ emerged from the initial vocalise, we were presented with projected quotations, while the sung text developed with random words, sung or spoken, including “indifferent, inevitable, inhuman”.
The second part opened with an extended scene where Héloïse sat on the chair and banged out a rhythmic motive of the stool in front of her, interspersed with tongue-clicks and the sound of her breaths. This part focussed on the role of humans and “the arrogance of humanity brought comically low”. Cameo scenes included a ‘Blues interlude’, a delightful little scene of imitation trumpet playing and the chilling words “we forgot to survive”.
The third part opens with an immensely powerful portrayal of the breakdown of an individual, as the silent Werner sits facing the audience and slowly explores the extraordinary power of personal grief, starting with mildly distracting finger-twiddling through to very physical portrayals of the pain of grief. Eventually words are revealed, reflecting the conflicts within such emotional intensity, the key words “Do not speak to me … but stay with me” reflecting Héloïse’s own statement in the programme note that “when you lose someone, you find yourself surrounded by people who never talk to you about it – not in person anyway – because they simply can’t. Or if they think they can, it quickly becomes unhelpful and patronising, in a weird sort of way.” This scene was particularly powerful, on many levels, not least making the onlooker asses the conflict between either avoiding people in such situations – or potentially overdoing the natural response. As her visible tension increased, the possible responses segued from an “Are you ok?” via “Would you like a hug” to extreme discomfort at the intensity of the emotion projected and doubts as to the sanity of the protagonist. The piece concluded quietly with the reflections that “nothing has changed … nothing is the same” and “One last weep, then live.”
This was very clearly a very personal response by Héloïse Werner to (unrevealed) events in her own life and, as such, must have been painful for her to develop and perform. That makes the result the more remarkable, with some exquisite acting, singing, speaking and physical theatre. Héloïse Werner came from Paris to read music (and as a choral scholar) at Clare College, Cambridge, with its strong mixed-choir tradition producing several prominent professional female singers. You can find out more here. An interview with Héloïse Werner, including a snippet of the opening of Scene from The End, can be found here.
The production moves to the Edinburgh Festival from 22-27 August, and will return to London in December for a run at the Tristan Bates Theatre. Some of the performance can be seen in the trailer here.
Photos: Nick Rutter.