There is a sketch next to Trinidadian Dominique Le Gendre’s Bird of Night programme note which captures graphically her own complex identity: individual, peer, family, national, collective, Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe, Martinique, and Trinidad. As is perhaps the case with every Caribbean artist, the negotiation between all these identities finds expression through her creative work.
Bird of Night, which premiered in October at the Royal Opera House in London, directed by Irina Brown, is Le Gendre’s first full-length opera. The first commissioned work by a female composer at the ROH. The first Trinidadian or Caribbean opera. One of the few operas by a black composer, man or woman. There are a lot of firsts.
But where Bird of Night and Le Gendre find company with generations of trailblazers like Errol Hill, Beryl McBurnie, Derek Walcott, Tony Hall, Earl Lovelace, and countless others, is in the idea of articulating a story, an aesthetic, and a form which are, if not wholly grounded in Trinidadian or Caribbean folk and indigenous traditions, at least richly infused with them. The fact that Le Gendre uses this opportunity to draw on and feature her Caribbean roots is not just interesting or admirable, but invaluable and even essential to a region still finding its own voice in literature, music, art, and theatre.
She and librettist Paul Bentley were faced with the familiar challenge of how to make Trinidadian dialect — let alone snippets of French-derived patois — comprehensible to a London audience. It is a task compounded by the fact that Bentley is English, and only moderately familiar with Trinidadian speech. His libretto, therefore, often only approximates the dialect — sometimes very accurate, sometimes contrived. It is rooted in 1950s Trinidad and in the relationship of its young protagonist, Apolline (sung by Betsabée Haas), with both this folk tradition and her colonial education.
Le Gendre and Bentley adapt familiar folk tales to accommodate additional characters and complications. The La Diablesse (Liora Grodnikaite) maintains her cloven hoof, but we can freely see her face, and she is the consort of a devil character called Diego (Richard Coxon). The myth of the soucouyant who leaves her skin at night is adapted to include a new mythological creature, the Bird of Night. Apolline’s obeah-woman godmother, Nen-Nen (Andrea Baker), is a bird of night, and it is something Apolline longs to become.
Much succeeds in this production. The direction is stylish, and the costumes and set (designed by Rae Smith), and lighting are sleek and dramatic. Drawing on a palette of black, white, red, and gold, the designs conjure up both the exuberance and the darkness of the Carnival and folk traditions. What feels incompletely articulated is the story, as told both through the text and the music. The relationships between the characters are not always clear, and sometimes lack tension where some should clearly be. Diego turns out to be Apolline’s biological father, essentially cuckolding Ti-Jo (Paul Whelan), husband to Apolline’s mother and the man who has raised her. Yet this family secret produces scant anxiety, and no real conflict develops among the characters affected by it. Most pressingly, the tensions between folk traditions and Western culture, black and white, French and English, ancient and modern, are raised only in passing. The implications of these ever-relevant postcolonial issues are not fully engaged or explored.
As a result, the opera lacks emotional depth, despite its harrowing conclusion. The music does not compensate, seldom reaching a real emotional climax. Some of the arias are also set outside the vocalists’ range, so that both the melodic lines and the libretto are lost. The score itself only hints at Caribbean origins, with percussive and rhythmic elements coming through more as texture and colouring than as foundational or distinctive. Nevertheless, Le Gendre does experiment with integrating Trinidad music and form, first in a rather awkward calypso that Diego sings to Apolline. Far more successful is the integration of parang towards the end of the opera. The juxtaposition of the festive songs against the misery of Apolline and her family is poignant and extremely effective.
Bird of Night is a landmark work on our literary and musical landscape. It has tremendous potential, and it would no doubt serve both the collaborators and the audience well for the story to be fine-tuned. In her programme notes, Le Gendre says, “This act of courage is for me the source of ‘flight’: the desire to go beyond oneself, to create and express the impossible, the unimaginable.”
Here’s to flight.