Away from the Proscenium Arch

Ulysses Comes Home.

This is Graham Vick’s version of Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse in Patria, presented by his Birmingham Opera Company in 2005.

Graham had prepared by presenting Monteverdi’s madrigals in a park to passers by and boys lying along the crossbars of their bikes; and Il Combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda in a shopping mall after hours. Ulysses was the crown of this effort.

Ulysses is a man seen as a stranger in his own country. A timely story for a city like Birmingham. We presented the opera in an old ice rink, long abandoned after a fire.

In its prime, Planet Ice had offered skates and milk to white boys and girls.

Now nearly one hundred people from a community more than 50% black or Asian volunteered to perform with the professional singers and players. For 6 weeks they gave up two evenings a week and Sunday afternoons to explore, devise, create their roles and perform in the opera.

Our ice rink had a door on a domestic scale. The scenery, which we wanted to be very real in the dream laden space was brought in flat-packed from a plant-hire firm.

Light blue sheds, as the buildings of Ithaca.

A wire fence 20 feet high divided the long oval space diagonally – on one side the ferry port of Ithaca, much changed in 20 years, and now on guard against asylum seekers.

On the other side, green grass, the playground of the greedy suitors.

Spongers on the hospitality of the lamenting Penelope, for whom bereavement was now a calling, not lightly to be surrendered.

Twenty years never to be recovered. A past before that remembered like a dried wedding wreath. A promenade audience of three hundred, as mixed in origin as the people of the performance, mingled and herded into the story.

The Prologue. Time, Human Frailty, Love and Fortune.

Neptune offended by Ulysses.

The audience is screened.

Ulysses tells his story to

the Immigration Officer, confronting him.

“Who are you?” she asks.
“I am a Greek in flight from Cretan justice.”
“Ulysses is cunning, but Minerva is wiser.”
In his mind’s eye, he sees the Goddess unmasked.

The old and faithful Shepard, Eumaeus, welcomes the disguised Ulysses to his Kebab van.

Minerva unfolds her plan for the death of the importunate suitors.

One of Penelope’s unwanted guests feeds a slice of Pizza to a member of the audience

and a woman senses the gathering storm.

Ulysses massacres the suitors.

Juno calls on Jove to release Ulysses from Neptune’s enmity.

Ulysses and Penelope cautiously surrender their doubts and are reunited.

Over many years, Graham Vick’s Birmingham Opera Company has played everywhere, in a big top, a redundant bank and factories stripped of their purpose. By now it has a chorus, a pool of actors and a network of thousands of supporters, delighted to have discovered opera as a source of revelation and high emotion.

The Homeric message of Ulysses Comes Home proved to be resonant for performers and audiences today. Other organisations are moved to emulation.

The snag is the degree of dedication needed.

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