Like Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Zoe Trope begins in court. It starts with Present Zoe ( Lucilla Graham) defending her choice not to post her husband’s death online as new laws demand in this dystopian future-set opera. It is a world dominated and dictated by the social media, a world where our online lives are surveyed by an increasingly tyrannical government for signs of any deviation from the norm. In a strong and declarative voice, the accused sings “my name is Zoe, my name is Zoe” in answer to her charges under the Public Media Misrepresentation Act. It reminded me of No. 6’s plea of “I am not a number, I am a free man” in that old favourite of conspiracy theorists everywhere, The Prisoner.
I would have said the premise of this engaging partial workshop performance a tad far fetched had it not been for the revelations of the heroic Edward Snowden. He showed us the extent of the conspiracy of our secret services to spy on us with the easy compliance of the social media to whom we display our foibles, fears, dislikes and relationship statuses on a daily basis. The fetching would appear to be not so far.
As the story unfolds, we are taken back to a past Zoe (Rosie Middleton), resplendent in a red mac reminiscent of Don’t Look Now, who sits reading a book and dreaming of her love, Harry (Chris Brett) while being stalked by a pair of tweedle-dee, tweedle-dumb cyber bullies (Jenny Carson and Fiona Hymns) armed with tablets on which the cyber norm is writ law. As a redneck once menacingly commented to a book-carrying Bill Hicks, “we got ourselves a reader here!” Reading is a sign of thought and, as George Orwell pointed out, thought can be a crime.
Zoe marries her childhood sweetheart, endearingly exchanging passwords as cyber vows and officiated over by the wonderful baritone of James Fisher as the priest (he also appears as a judge and teacher). In the end, we return to Present Zoe in court and, at the end of her cyber tether, she plaintively pleads guilty of “misrepresenting herself”.
The performance lasted a mere 35 minutes but it was packed full of memorable images on a stark studio floor and minimal, muscular musical accompaniment by Dan Chappell on piano. It was director Lucia Cox’s first opera and I can only hope that she goes on to do more. The mirrored swapping of past and present Zoe echoed the mirror exchange of the Marx Brothers in Cox’s witty acknowledgement of their dystopian masterpiece, Duck Soup.
Composer Michael Betteridge and librettist Thomas Ellison have written a gem of an opera; contemporary, pertinent and moving. I really hope that this taster can secure the funds to develop Zoe Trope into the full-blown powerhouse of an opera it deserves to be. A zoetrope makes still images move and comes from the Greek ‘zoe’ meaning ‘life’ and ‘tropos’ meanng ‘turning’. It has the potential to be life turning for all involved.
Zoe Trope: A Workshop Performance was at the Royal Northern College of Music. It has also been performed at The Cockpit in London.