Iain Banks' The Wasp Factory is now an opera

The Wasp Factory by Ben Frost (composer/director) and David Poutney (librettist)
Linbury Studio
Royal Opera House, London
October 7, 2013

With its latest production of The Wasp Factory, the Royal Opera House has given the opera world a new short opera which will sit alongside psychological drama such as Bartok’s Bluebeard's Castle and Schoenberg’s Erwartung.

When Iain Banks’ The Wasp Factory was published 30 years ago it was controversial because of its depiction of murder and the killing of animals.

The main character, Frank describes the murders and his responses in a depraved and clinical way and we discover the root of his problems - that he is a girl to whom his father has given male hormones.

The composer and director Ben Frost, an Australian living in Iceland, and librettist David Pountney have produced a work that is not so much an operatic version of the book as rumination on some of its themes.

There is no Frank, certainly no 16-year-old boy. Instead he is played by three women, which goes some way to showing his schizophrenic nature. They become the three Furies of mythology in a self-torturing and punishing attack on their own alter ego – Frank.

The structure of the large square stage on which the action takes place only becomes apparent as the work progresses. It is actually a huge light box covered with soil on which the singers cavort.

The box slowly pivots up over the duration of the performance, until it is upright, dumping the soil onto the stage, the singers left clinging to its surface like impaled insects, writhing in its heat.

The music is provided by a string quintet, the Reykjavik Sinfonia, along with sequences of electronic noise. It's a mixture of minimalism and lyricism supporting the almost poetic naturalism of the singers, a combination of Karl Jenkins, John Adams and Krzysztof Penderecki

The three singers, who switch between narrator, commentator and chorus, provide a slow, mesmeric quasi-dance performance worthy of any contemporary dance group. Writhing, interweaving and scurrying across the surface of the stage they are both hunters and hunted in a physical and emotional search for redemption.

Lieseclot De Wilde’s frenetic performance gives an insight into Frank’s ADHD personality while Jordis Richter and Mariam Wallentin provide a sense of his emotional struggle in their acting, which is a combination of wrestlers and lovers.

There is an underlying sensuality to their performance but they manage to achieve a lyricism and beauty in depicting events such as the death of Esmeralda. This lyricism creates a sense of religious ritual which pervades the work with allusions to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.

The personal angst and depravity of the work becomes a metaphor for universal evil. It is not just a comment on serial murderers but on the immorality of genocide and political oppression.

One of the problems with the production, and a fault of many productions of English language operas, is the lack of subtitles.

It is assumed the audience will be able to clearly hear all the dialogue above the noise and music. That is not possible; half the dialogue is lost. It would have been useful to have had the promised German subtitles.

As it was, the lack of clarity was a disservice to the audience, the singers and ultimately the composer.