In review: Collision at Grimeborn Spectra Ensemble presents Collision. Photo: Katie Edwards.

In review: Collision at Grimeborn

John Beckett

Among the five operas being performed as part of the Grimeborn 2017 summer season, we saw Spectra Ensemble’s performance of Collision, a new opera with music by Lewis Coenen-Rowe set to a text written by Kurt Schwitters in 1928. The ensemble accurately describes the piece as “part absurdist science-fiction, part sultry cabaret,” and it definitely has the underground club feeling, taking place literally underground in the basement of the Arcola Theatre in East London.

The action begins as an astronomer in 1920’s Berlin discovers a planet that is about to collide with earth, bringing the end of the world. Different characters from different walks of life in Berlin respond to the news each in their own ways, usually for their own benefit.

As Kurt Schwitters was a visual artist, this is his only known opera libretto - although we see the same dada and nihilistic themes in this text as we do in his art. Here we are faced with the end of the world, the most catastrophic event that could conceivably take place, and most of the characters seem to think little of it. There is very little urgency considering the situation, and at the end of the opera it turns out that the world is not ending, and the planet set to collide with earth just passes by.

Bethany Horak Hallett, Alexander Gebhard, Henry George Page, and Juliet Wallace in Collision. Photo: Robert Workman.

The fact is, that when the world doesn’t actually end, this show still makes an audience member think, “What was the point of all that?” And while this response may have been desired by Schwitters and his dada contemporaries, this 21st-century opera-goer was a bit confused. The work has the potential to, if not be deeply moving, at least have a little fun in the five scenes that come without an interval. But there was a grave undertone throughout the piece that never lifted, making the work feel long and a bit burdened.

Coenen-Rowe’s music was interesting, sung by the ensemble cast and group of five instruments, with jazz motifs and sound effects that put us into Germany in the 1920’s. We found the texture of the music to be consistently too heavy, without much musical breathing room - this was a bit of a surprise considering the small ensemble of musicians. Overall, the singing and playing felt academic, more on par with a conservatory-level production than a professional one. Because of all this, the text was very difficult to understand, and we felt like we missed vital information about the plot and the character’s changing relationships to one another. In situations like this, we wish we could blame the acoustic for this problem, but the singers were at times inches away from our seats.

Olivia Sjöberg, Bethany Horak Hallett, Alexader Gebhard, and Henry George Page in Collision. Photo: Robert Workman.

There are two more chances to see Collision, tonight and tomorrow night (August 18 - 19) at the Arcola Theatre. Any theatre that lets you enjoy a beer in your seat has a special place in our heart, so check out all of the Grimeborn productions running until the beginning of September.

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