UK premiere of Unsuk Chin opera Alice in Wonderland

In March, Barbican and BBC Symphony Orchestra will present the UK premiere of a brand new take on multi-award-winning composer Unsuk Chin’s Alice in Wonderland.

Chin co-wrote the English libretto to the piece, her first opera, with Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang, resulting in what German magazine OpernWelt declared to be ‘world premiere of the year’ when it debuted at Munich Opera Festival in 2007.

The forthcoming London show follows hot on the heels of a scaled-up version for American audiences, launching at Walt Disney Concert Hall later this month as a two-night co-production with Los Angeles Philharmonic and LA Opera.

For both the US and UK performances, acclaimed British director, designer and filmmaker Netia Jones has completely reimagined Chin’s acclaimed debut as a multimedia audiovisual feast. Marking the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, she’s crafted a distinctly modern take on the iconic Victorian fantasy, constructing a dynamic sensory world in which live projections and animated characters inhabit the stage alongside the cast.

Her fully choreographed production unfolds on a black and white chessboard floor, with the orchestra seated onstage as part of the set. These lavish environments also incorporate the darkly twisted animations and caricatures of the much-loved UK ‘gonzo’ artist Ralph Steadman, best known for his many cult collaborations with the late Hunter S Thompson.

The ambitious scope of this new reboot, coupled with some outlandish costume design and the onstage presence of a large chorus ensemble, will doubtless make for a spectacular visual experience. All the same, Chin’s mischievous, wildly imaginative score is what really drives the piece – and Jones wouldn’t have it any other way.

‘Everything has to be led by the music; that’s always my priority,’ she tells IAM, taking a rare break from rehearsals. ‘I even design costumes to the score, rather than to the words. The sounds a singer must make, for example, will heavily inform the energy and personality of their character, and the costume has to embody that. The same is very true of set design; the strongest sense of any visual landscape really emerges from the score.’

Netia Jones
Netia Jones

The UK press has referred to Jones as ‘the most imaginative director of opera working in Britain today’. Her role as leader of the critically lauded mixed-media production studio, Lightmap, reflects an ongoing commitment to embedding film and mixed media within the context of live performance. Her background makes it all the more surprising – and convincing – when she states unequivocally that ‘multimedia projection, in and of itself, is just another layer; another way of enriching the visual field.’

Jones explains that, for real impact, it’s crucially important for any multimedia elements of a production to remain subservient to the music. As far as she’s concerned, the best way to achieve optimum results – at least in the case of Alice – is to ensure that she’s on hand to mix and blend the show’s various visual effects live on stage as it unfolds.

In this way, her role in the performance becomes a dialogue with the score and the cast, rather than a long sequence of transitions and animation effects that have been fully programmed and cued in advance.

‘The person that must lead any performance is the conductor,’ she attests, ‘and should they have a whim to take something at half speed, for example, I need to be able to respond to that. On stage, I’m reacting in real time to what’s going on, and following the conductor as much as anybody else is. The multimedia elements here aren’t like a sequence of short films, where I just pop in a DVD and hit a button to run them alongside the action – it’s more about crafting and blending the various layers in ways that integrate fully into the performance; in effect, they’re ‘played’ in a much more musical and spontaneous sense.’

This integrated approach has been a notable factor in much of Jones’s other work to date, including presentations of Britten’s Curlew River; Kafka Fragments by Kurtag; Verklärte Nacht by Schönberg for the Musikkollegium in Switzerland; Knussen’s Where the Wild Things Are; and Handel’s Susanna and Flavio.

‘Ultimately,’ she says, ‘what makes live performance exciting is the very liveness of it – the fact that a group of people on stage can work collaboratively in response to something, in this case the score, and create these amazing one-off moments as a result.’

Ralph Steadman's take on the Queen of Hearts' fishy footmen
Ralph Steadman’s take on the Queen of Hearts’ fishy footmen

Mainstream and fringe theatre have both, in recent years, seen increasingly widespread incorporation of multimedia visual effects. However, some would argue it’s the audio aspect of a music-based recital that ought to command our attention, rather than any additional visual flourishes.

Could the introduction of multimedia projection still feel like a relatively superfluous – even jarring – addition to live classical and operatic performances, then?

‘Looking at the history of live video software in the performing arts, and the amazing developments that have brought us to where we are today, it’s clearly been propelled largely by dance,’ says Jones. ‘That’s logical, because dance is a very fluid medium, and so these exciting video mapping and camera tracking techniques fit better with the constant movement onstage. Conversely, most live classical music and opera is less action-led, so traditionally the relationship with visual enhancements has been less clear.’

For the past 10 years, Jones has sought to nurture precisely that – a more symbiotic relationship between performance and visual installations – by actively seeking out projects that might work best with classical music, ‘and that might even embed themselves into its performance culture, rather than jarring with it’, she adds.

‘Opera is a perfectly logical base for exploring new technologies and ideas, because it is by definition multimedia, and always has been.’

As the use of multimedia and digital enhancement continues to take root in the live performance world, the most thrilling innovations for Jones today are, somewhat surprisingly, the very ones that help to disguise the ‘absurd amount of my life’ she puts into exploring and developing new techniques: ‘One of the things I’m most excited by – and I suppose it’s contrary, in a way – is that we’re reaching a stage where technology is being incorporated in increasingly oblique or invisible ways.

‘I’m seeing productions that couldn’t have happened without the technology, but where you don’t immediately spot how it’s being deployed. We’ve come past the obvious showcasing of that element now…almost to the point where if a show’s publicity material makes a very big deal of it, you inherently feel there’s likely to be some sort of limitation there,’ she suggests. ‘I think this can only be a good thing; as humans, what we’re really interested in is storytelling and concept.

‘To fully benefit from the amazing sleight of hand that these techniques can offer – the coup de théâtre moment that amazes or confounds, as live performance has always sought to do – it’s vital that any technology behind a production is handled confidently enough to fade into the background.’

Whether or not the technical wizardry embellishing Jones’ reworking of Alice ends up stealing the odd scene in LA and London, only time will tell. What is certain is that tailoring the show to fit the challenges of those two very different performance spaces has been one of the toughest challenges of her career to date.

‘It’s a steep, steep learning curve. Whenever you take work to new places you’re dealing with different sets of rules, traditions and personalities, so you have to adapt both your production and your own approach to communicating your views. A key difficulty with Alice has been working to a very grand scale for the LA shows – everything must be bigger in America! – while making sure it maintains all the same flavour and atmosphere when we bring it back to a much smaller space like we’ve got at the Barbican.’

Alice (Rachele Gilmore) wears her '2D' costume, designed by Netia Jones
Alice (Rachele Gilmore) wears her ‘2D’ costume, designed by Netia Jones

Thinking her way around the space issue has, in fact, involved some surprisingly in-depth mathematics. This being Alice In Wonderland, the costumes designed by Jones are naturally extravagant: the Queen of Hearts, for example, takes to the stage sporting a nine-foot ruff, while Alice herself is clad in a completely two-dimensional dress as though lifted straight from an illustration in the novel.

‘We need to figure out not only how the costumes will function in the space, but also exactly how the cast can perform in them,’ Jones explains. ‘It’s a delicate balancing act between this air of creative anarchy, which Chin’s score definitely lays the foundation for, and the almost militaristic technical precision required to support it. Behind the scenes, we’re crunching some incredibly complex numbers to make everything come together seamlessly.

‘In Alice, the White Queen has a line to the effect of ‘sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast’ – on this brilliant and baffling journey, I feel I’ve quite often found myself having to do just that.’

Unsuk Chin: Alice in Wonderland, Sunday 8 March, 7.30pm. For booking info, visit the Barbican website here.