Saturday, 23 October 2010

Tonight: Tomorrow, in a Year

One of the biggest attractions of Melbourne, Australia, is its lively cultural scene, which includes a rolling series of arts festivals throughout the year. 

The flagship culture fest, the Melbourne Festival, takes place each spring, and is always certain to produce at least one work that polarises the public. 

This year's Exhibit A was the modern Danish opera, Tomorrow, in a Year, which I saw tonight...

There are some live shows for which it's best to abandon all expectations of a straightforward linear narrative, and instead sit back, approach the thing holistically and let it wash over you. Such a show is Tomorrow, in a Year.

The premise is promising, even intriguing: an opera based on the life and work of Charles Darwin, created for the 150th anniversary of his landmark On the Origin of Species.

Its creators haven't made it particularly easy to ease into. For the first 20 minutes or so, mezzo-soprano Kristina Wahlin sings in a flowing red gown atop a giant glowing green brick wall, while dancers describe animalistic moves at floor level as an intense green light draws outlines in the air.

So far, so arty. But as the production moves along, the scenes open up and become more accessible. The large-scale audiovisual treatment continues, but in the lyrics and images there are references to Darwin's daughter Annie, who died when she was ten, and to his famous book; and text from his notes are projected in bright green cursive script.

The final passage is distinctly moving, referencing the diversity of life through the lyrics and glowing outlines of creatures superimposed on their images behind the performers.

To me the finale is a reminder that Darwin's theory is more than dry scientific fact; that it's the key to understanding the elegant process that has created the multitude of creatures with whom we share the planet.

It's strange, really, that the theory of evolution so threatens some people. How small they make themselves appear, by insisting they are so big.

The Melbourne Festival takes place in October each year. You can find out more at its website, www.melbournefestival.com.au.