It’s hard to get more hipster than an immersive opera installation in an abandoned house in Peckham. workshOPERA’s Seven Velvet Suits is part of BasicSpace, a new arts festival offering six productions of the theatrically-experimental variety: other pieces ask us to read our own play, or imagine there are zombies lurking beyond the door, so the interweaving of a single baritone performance (Piran Legg singing the part of Erik Satie) and a fine piece of acting (Andre Flynn as Satie’s brother Conrad) feels like the most traditional dish on the BasicSpace menu. Set to a subtle, trickling piano accompaniment from composer James Garner, Seven Velvet Suits is a vivid exploration of a fractured sibling relationship – and how hard it is to live with genius.
Erik Satie seems to have spent his life veering between between the joyous playfulness of surrealism (he helped Man Ray create The Gift, 1921) and the bitter despair of alcoholism and loneliness. Walking into his derelict rooms, with crumpled manuscripts drifting across the floor like so many dead and rotting leaves, punctuated in corners by empty (and full!) bottles of absinthe, the general squalor (with plaster literally peeling off the walls) breathes out a sense of overwhelming sadness. Designer Anna Driftmier’s eye for detail even extends to period-perfect 1920s labels on the little bottles of cod liver oil by his shaving stand, with matching empties lying broken beneath. Satie’s scrupulously immaculate physical appearance as he enters the room offers an immediate contrast to the detritus; and Legg’s warm, strong tones convey the pleasure, and confidence, of an artist in absolute control of his art, if not of his surroundings or his life.
One of the main challenges with small-scale, interactive opera is that there’s absolutely nowhere left for a singer to hide: any holes in acting or singing will gape openly without the distraction (or distance) of an orchestra between you and the audience. Legg stands up to this challenge with capable charisma, pitching his voice perfectly in the small space, capturing our attention and keeping it with just as much aplomb as his acting counterpart, whether singing or silent. Actor Andre Flynn portrays Conrad, the more prosaic pharmacist Satie brother, as a man fighting his own battles with life, also obsessive and reclusive, grievously wounded by the recent death of his wife (just as Erik was by the departure of Suzanne Valadon, his only love, thirty years previously) and struggling with his love, fury and resentful frustration at the brother he barely understood. As Conrad explores the rooms, searching among the rubbish for Erik’s dying wish, a letter, he remembers their lives both together and apart, coming slowly to a better understanding of his strange, sad, peculiar and gifted brother.
Sometimes these ramblings can feel a little slow; although the performances are intense, with plenty of good ideas from director Anna Pool (moving close to the audience, using the whole space, and even the ground as Conrad sinks to the floor in an absinthe stupor), the piece does feel all 45 of its minutes, perhaps because grief is a messy business, perhaps because we are standing throughout. But, after all, art isn’t made for comfort. Seven Velvet Suits successfully offers us a memorably intense chance to ponder the life, and death, of Erik Satie: and showcases two fine young talents in the process.