This intriguing opera starts with the introduction of five amusing chefs in a Chinese/Thai/Vietnamese restaurant one of whom is a boy wailing with toothache, eliciting nervous laughter from the audience.
That laughter continues through much of the work, thanks to both the farcical humour and characterisations, until the grossly dark and disturbing rot in the world, mirrored by the rot in the young chef’s tooth, silences into disgusted and guilty silence.
The opera is little known beyond modern opera aficionados and so like me, I assume, the work was new to many audience members and the unravelling of the narrative towards the bitter ending was engrossing in its grossness.
The work may have been first performed as recently as 2014, and was given its British première by Music Theatre Wales in 2016 and has now opened a UK tour with the first night at Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre. It is rooted in the agit prop of earlier times and is most obviously to be likened to a Brechtian didactic socialist tale, vulnerable workers, sexual exploitation, the excesses of capitalism, greed, selfishness, fear and loathing, you name it, it is all there.
What redeems the work for audiences with a balanced world view is that it is all told with great humour and is richly entertaining, fast-moving, one-act chamber opera roller coasting through 21 short scenes and lasting no more than 90 minutes. How this contrasts with the tub thumping, moralising misery we are so often inflicted with on this and other theatre stages.
Dan Norman, Llio Evans and Johnny Herford
The basic tale is that the young chef had no money and no papers and so cannot go to a dentist and his colleagues have to perform dental surgery with both hilarious and grim consequences ending, of course, in tragedy but perhaps also redemption.
The already fantastic tale is interwoven with the Aesop fable of the hard-working Ant and the lazy Cricket, who in this version, like the immigrant worker, ends up being exploited, this time sexually. Add to this mixture tired air stewardesses, an old man longing for sexual youth, a pregnant girl and her angry boyfriend, plus the cleanly drawn chefs, all played by the cast of Llio Evans, Lucy Schaufer, Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, Dan Norman and Johnny Herford and you have a theatrical offering as full of flavour as the restaurant’s Thai soup with its unusual ingredient.
Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks, Johnny Herford, Dan Norman and Llio Evans (foreground)
Dan Norman, Lucy Schaufer and Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks
Yet again director Michael McCarthy, here with designer Simon Banham, has created a production that is both sparse and sharp, yet imaginative in its look, the drawing of the characters and the complicated storytelling. The cast is exceptional with every second embraced and exploited for dramatic opportunity
This is not opera for those who may desire flowing, lyrical beauty. Rather Eötvös’s score is often harsh and unremitting, vocal lines as much spoken as much as sung, surfing on music that is redolent of oriental sounds (sometimes using the cooking implements of the chefs), disturbing percussion, gongs, the musicians announcing short or long pauses punctuating the action.
The musicians are on stage throughout the opera, behind the red counter on and in front of which the players cook and perform the various scenes, but always in views and, like the ensemble, wearing old T-shirts and,in the case of conductor Geoffrey Patterson, dressed like another chef directing his kitchen crew to cook up another fusion feast.
Yes, the setting is a restaurant and the chefs all identify with different Asian nationalities but they are, of course, representative of all immigrant workers, exploited workers, from any race or nationality.