Sarah Urwin Jones
20 August 2013
★ ★ ★ ★
Wine women and song. Add a couple of drunken Glaswegians and a corpse and you have NOISE Opera’s good-natured pub-set opera, wittily reimagining centuries of tales from a Glasgow bar over the course of a few festival drinks. It began with a drunken man stumbling into an overcrowded room, slumping over his wine glass before singing a sizzled aria of lost love as the punters next to him – the opera ‘’band’’ – played their water filled glasses in mournful harmony.
Composed and conducted by Gareth Williams – who also doubled usefully as a corpse in one amusing scene – this Fringe revival asked us to make something of an imaginative leap in transferring the action from the dark wood panelling and stained glass of Glasgow’s Sloans Bar to a rather more genteel townhouse in Edinburgh’s leafy Rutland Square. We were aided by Louise Montgomery’s drily humorous landlady, who archly repainted the Arts Clubs’ upstairs gallery as Sloans’ Grand Ballroom, exhorting us to tak’ a drink to ease the scene changes.
Williams built his evocative score around the sounds of the pub – wine glasses sang or clinked, an accordion accompanied a dead man’s favourite tune. If there were a lot of clichés in David Brock’s libretto from the bling-obsessed bride (Miranda Sinani) to the ‘’amiable’’ alcoholic whose wife ‘’prefers him when he drinks’’ (Shuna Scott Sendall) it was all good-natured enough – and well played by the musicians integrated into the drama – to gloss over any reservations.
Best were the opening scenes, from the newlyweds fending off the irritating drunk, to a majestically off-key due (Alistair Digges and Douglas Nairne), drunkenly carousing over the body of a dead friend temporarily laid out in the bar.
Sarah Unwin Jones
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Monday, 19 August 2013
The Sloans Project is an exciting new opera that has been around for a couple of years but is revived for this year’sEdinburgh Fringe. This performance was one of two being given in its original setting – the Glasgow public house from which its stories derive. It now moves over to Edinburgh in a brave attempt to relocate a piece which has hitherto been regarded as absolutely site specific and tied to its origins. The Sloans Project is an innovative and gripping piece and deserves to succeed in any setting. All parts were played by a quartet of singers accompanied by half a dozen musicians.
We begin, of course, in the bar. Arriving in Sloans on a Wednesday afternoon, it was not immediately obvious that there was any performance scheduled at all. It was simply an old bar room filled with locals drinking. A young chap (in fact the composer, Gareth Williams) sat at the bar with a glass of water and a musical score in front of him, but that was the only clue that a performance was in the offing at all. Suddenly though, he dipped his finger in the water and started circling the glass, making it sing. As he did so, other previously unnoticed members of the company dotted around the bar began to do the same. In moments the whole bar seemed to be singing its own ringing, gathering chord. A woman then appeared through the door and began to sing. It was an electric beginning to a piece which was full of drama.
The Project is not a continuous narrative. Rather, it is a series of five scenes drawn from stories connected with the bar. Three characters re-occur from the first scene in the last, bringing some kind of conclusion to proceedings and the audience is guided from room to room, up and downstairs to a different location for each scene by a Landlady who turns out to be something of a narrator figure. The scenes are drawn from different periods in the history of Sloans.
The first scene, Mad For It, turns out to be an encounter between a young couple who have just become engaged. The pub is located close by an early shopping arcade where Glasgow’s jewellers congregate. The young couple come up from the arcade where they have just bought a wedding ring to toast their future, as many have done before them. The Albanian soprano Miranda Sinani’s Bride-to-Be had a voice that stopped every conversation in the bar when she entered. Fine and clear, hers was the first indication of the intensity of the experience which was going to unfold. Her intended Husband-to-Be, the Scottish baritone Douglas Nairne, was waiting for her at the bar – keen to order two pints, only to acquiesce to her cry for champagne by ordering “two fizzy wines”. Young love suddenly rubs up against reality as the couple are interrupted by a Glasgow drunk. His tale of unhappiness leads him to leave a wedding ring on the bar. The young couple decide to take it and get their money back for the one that they had previously bought.
During this episode, the orchestration gradually built out from the sound of the singing glasses. A violin and a cello wind themselves around the ringing chord which is enhanced with an accordion and gradually, a rhythm is introduced with the tinkling of a toy piano.
Upstairs in the restaurant, the second scene Chopin’s Ghosts was by far the most emotional of the afternoon. This is a monologue sung by one soprano voice – Shuna Scott Sendall. She is a former manageress of the bar who fell in love with Chopin when he was briefly in Glasgow. Apparently she married a bar-room pianist on the rebound and has never been happy with him since. At one end of the room the pianist plays. At the other, she tells her story. The sheer power of this lyrical lament for a love that might have been and a love that never happened was spine tingling. (Apart from anything else, the audience in this promenade production were always right with the characters singing – one simply isn’t used to being so close to such powerful voices). The pianist remains impassive as the Manageress accuses him but he continues to play, in dialogue with a harp player sitting in the corner of the room. It is a mesmerising triangle. During all this, the Manageress gradually divests herself of many strings of pearls which she had arrived adorned in. The pearls are all dropped into a large glass on top of the upright piano as though she is paying heavily for her mistake years ago in taking up with the wrong pianist. This dark striptease perfectly matched the singing which was hopelessly sad and longing for some kind of erotic answer which never came. At the end, one last pearl was dropped into the glass with a jangle from the harp and though the Manageress was standing completely clothed, it felt as though she had given so many of her emotions that she was naked before us all. This was utterly spellbinding and it was worth seeing the opera for this scene alone.
A spoken monologue from the Landlady (Louise Montgomery) then entertained and distracted the audience whilst members of the company rearranged themselves in the building. Moving along to the Snug, we get the story (Country Song) of a couple of mates who have come into the pub with a coffin to toast their recently departed friend. Unable to get him up the stairs, they remove the corpse (looking suspiciously like composer Gareth Williams) and prop it up on the bar whilst they drink and blether. The three musicians who accompanied this section were behind the bar whilst Miranda Sinani entertained us as the jukebox, singing the deceased’s favourite Country Song whilst his friends wonder why he has gone before they have.
Then back to the restaurant for a duet in a section called Charm that has just been added to the project. Here the two male singers became the serial killer Peter Manuel (known to have drunk at Sloans and subsequently hanged) and the father of one of his victims. Douglas Nairne’s voice was the most conversational of the four singers involved in the project. His baritone needed to be listened to a little more carefully than the others in order to pick out the words in an acoustic which inevitably somewhat variable. Tenor Alistair Digges’ voice, like the two female singers, was far more forceful. This scene was the only one in which the energy levels seemed to droop a little. This has been recently added and it might be that a little more attention to the dramatic content would be useful, as it was not always entirely obvious what was going on.
The final section – Young Love – saw the audience, now seated around the ballroom on the top floor of the pub, cast as the guests at the wedding reception of the couple we had met in the first scene. All the voices were set against one another in a standoff when the drunk from that first scene turns up, now sober and reformed, with his Glasgow missus who wants her ring back. Moving around the ballroom, weaving in and out of the tables at which the audience were sitting, a resolution is worked out which sees the ring being handed back and a final chorus involving all voices singing together for the first time.
Gareth Williams’ score is modern yet melodic. There are snatches of tunes which stick in the mind and powerful rhythmic pulses that linger in the memory. The libretto by David Brockis funny and as they say round here, couthy. James Robert Carson’s direction is faultless.
The Sloans Project is a fantastic ghost story, bringing to life characters from a building which has seen more than its fair share of Glasgow drama through the years. Whether this hitherto site-specific piece can translate to other venues remains to be seen. In its original setting, the experience is electric. It is musically coherent and full of stories which are highly charged with laughter and sadness. It deserves to do well anywhere.
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The SOUND website/The Herald
Edited version printed in The Herald, November 5th, 2012
I was not at all certain what I was going to when I set off for the Illicit Still, a pub in Aberdeen’s Netherkirkgate, to experience something called The Sloans Project. I was even more disquieted when I got inside the pub to find the place filled not with obvious opera buffs but with people who seemed to be there just to enjoy a drink. Had I come to the wrong place? But no! There was the welcome sight of Pete Stollery in the company of other musicianly looking people, so I joined them. I was still concerned though about what might happen once the singing got going and perhaps disturbed or annoyed the regular clientele. How would the ordinary punters react? I need not have worried. People who do not like opera or even musicals have said to me that in real life, nobody starts singing and yet when the music did start, the whole place became quiet, everybody listened and nobody tried to heckle. The singing seemed to be the most natural thing in the world. Was that what happened in Glasgow too? I wonder. In some ways Glasgow is a different country from Aberdeen. Several of the references in the performance were certainly picked up easily enough by the Aberdeen audience but I am sure they did not quite hit home in the same way as they would in Glasgow. Sarah Howarth’s warmly comic spoken dialogue as the Landlady certainly brought something of the unique atmospheric flavour of Sloan’s to Aberdeen’s Illicit Still – but Sloan’s I fancy is still in a different world entirely.
What about the performance itself? It was amazing and often quite magical. The music began with the sound of a singing wine glass, gradually a chord built up with other glasses and when Miranda Sinani as the bride to be started to sing, people were almost instantly captivated and drawn into the story. It was more than just intimate, we the audience were part of the action along with the singers. It was my first experience of being an extra in an opera. Yes, we were a real part of the action. It was exhilarating to say the least. The older man in the pub, tenor Jamie MacDougall, took off his wedding ring, embittered because his wife had left him. He abandoned it on the bar, a temptation for the younger couple. This was the end of the first scene. For the other three, we moved upstairs to the quieter more concentrated atmosphere of the street level bar. Legends of the history of Sloans included the story of the ghosts of a Victorian manageress brilliantly sung and acted by Arlene Rolph and her pianist lover, keyboardist and conductor Andy Massey. Here I really was drawn with astonishing intimacy into the action. A wake, featuring a gloriously comic parody of country music was followed by the original young couple’s wedding scene in the Sloan’s Ballroom Suite. The abandoned ring from the first scene was finally returned to its rightful owners cementing their broken relationship and the in a wonderfully moving turn of events, both older and younger couples were movingly united in love and happiness as they joined in dancing together. David Brock’s libretto was full of surprising imaginative twists. It drew you in with its reflections of real life experiences, tragic, comical and ultimately happily uplifting. The music by Gareth Williams was a glorious stylistic collage that nevertheless flowed together seamlessly; it was like nothing I had ever heard before and yet like so much I had heard. I particularly loved the echoes of Kurt Weill created by the use of the accordion. First rate singers, an excellent instrumental ensemble and a performance that really hit home base, this was an experience not to be missed.
© Alan Cooper 2012
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22 Jul 2011
If you’re in a crowded bar and someone next to you bursts into song, the instinct is to edge towards the door.
But when Miranda Sinani hits wonderfully lyrical high notes – in an exhilarated aria about sparkly engagement rings – you’re drawn into a tremendous operatic adventure that mixes the promenade fun of a site-specific event with morsels of local history and vignettes of Glasgow life: all set to a thoughtfully unstuffy, thoroughly engaging score. It’s opera, for sure, but not as we usually know it.
New group NOISE announce their bold arrival on the Scottish scene by leading us – by the ears, as well as the eyes – through locations in Sloans’ historic warren of function rooms.
Like so much of Glasgow’s daily rounds, we kick off in the downstairs bar, our chatter silenced by the other-worldy sound of a finger stroking a siren call from the rim of a glass. Our bride-to-be and her intended (Paul Kehone) have been in Argyll Arcade, buying that ring, and now he needs a drink.
Librettist David Brock sparks this and the scenarios that follow with flourishes of Glesga patter that ensure this Sloan’s Project feels totally at home, while composer Gareth Williams crafts soaring drama, heartfelt emotion and robust comedy into a fresh and lively take on chamber opera traditions.
Here, of course, we have several chambers, each witness to a facet of Sloan’s and Glasgow’s shared rituals of celebration, grief and drowning of sorrows. Without spoiling the surprises, let’s just say the wake in the wee snug is a highlight, but really the whole project is a well-sung, well-played pleasure that puts opera “in yer face” with impressive flair and professionalism.
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'Merchants of joy take to the streets'
Monday 25 July 2011
My own Merchant City day started on the area’s western edge, at Sloans Bar in the Argyll Arcade, where a blisteringly talented bunch of musicians, singers and actors known as Noise Opera were presenting a 75-minute fully-fledged modern classical work by composer Gareth Williams and librettist David Brook, known simply as The Sloans Project. Beginning in the bar, and then moving on to four other spaces on the upper floors of this beautiful historic building – a pub since 1797 – the show featured five musicians, five superb singers, and four actors, and a series of scenes involving a wedding, a funeral, and a strange historical flashback to a fierce moment of connection between a 19th-century manageress of the howff, and Frederic Chopin, on tour in Scotland.