The Oxford Contemporary Opera Festival, a two-night celebration of contemporary opera featuring three new short operas written and performed by students, took place last week on 26 and 27 November at St Hilda’s Jacqueline du Pre Music Building. The operas, The Outsider, Susanna, and BOU6, dealt with the timely themes of class and gender politics, workplace sexual abuse, and the recent crisis in Hong Kong respectively. Exeter student Zerlina Vulliamy (2017, Music) conceived and oversaw the delivery of the festival, and also composed and directed Susanna, a modern retelling of Susanna’s story from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Both nights were sold out; I was pleased to join a varied audience of students and non-students on the festival’s second night.
The three operas were performed with intervals in between, during which we were invited to explore the festival exhibition, which contained quotations and information from the writers.
Susanna was overall a bright opera full of humour, frequently prompting laughter from the audience with lines such as “Raise a glass to the oﬃce.” It followed the story of Susanna (played amiably and wittily by Queen’s College student Tamsin Sandford Smith), in this retelling a modern workaholic in an ethereally lit oﬃce, who found herself the subject of her boss’s attention. The light humour and music, however, ultimately shifted to a poignant depiction of a victim of sexual abuse in the workplace, as Susanna repeated, “…your little joke is my destruction.”
As well as a very warm response from the capacity audience, the festival received positive comments from Oxford Opening Night, an independent theatre review blog, which described the festival as “a wonderful synthesis of what contemporary opera has to oﬀer” and Susanna as an opera that oﬀered “at once raunchy comedy, lyricism, and a snappy formation of feminist resolve.”
In her commentary on Susanna, featured as part of the festival exhibition, Zerlina asserted that the opera is “not a #MeToo opera,” but “an opera which conveys one story of one woman, relating to the real life situations that many people experience on a daily basis.”
On the festival selling out, Zerlina commented, “I am delighted and surprised.” She added, “I hope that the evening made the audience think and reflect not only on the themes expressed but also the stylistic concept of opera as a whole. It’s so important to me that we continue to make opera as accessible to everyone as possible, as the potential of modern opera is limitless.”