Exactly – yet while there’s enough surreal comedy for the Flying Circus running throughout, most of the riffs here are all too real: thirty virgins having their teeth checked in order to secure the mounting debts of Louis XVI. Workers paying tribute to a catfish deity in earthquake-struck Edo. A Miami-based insurance broker drafting a contract for apartments that are already underwater (hence, the pastel purple wellies he stomps around in.)
Dead Cat Bounce
If a catastrophe is a sudden turn for the worse, then Dead Cat Bounce is another ten turns of the screw. A riotous, excited gambol through five disaster vignettes from various historical periods, ‘it all starts with this story of the five Chinese hitmen’, says artist Gary Zhexi Zhang, who here takes on the role of a librettist. ‘There’s this structure of deferral,’ he says of the true story of five hitmen who each subcontracted another to kill the same person – ‘like the structure of a joke.’
"As they say, a dead cat thrown out of a window of a very tall building will still bounce"
Dead Cat Bounce might share the DNA of a shaggy dog story, but formally speaking, it’s an oratorio – ‘a sacred form of dialogue’, says artist, writer and designer Klara Kofen, who co-wrote the libretto with Zhang. Kofen runs experimental music theatre collective Waste Paper Opera alongside composer and performer James Oldham. Historically, oratorios involved monks or nuns who would ask each other questions in the form of song, but from the first note of Oldham’s score, the sacred bleeds into the profane – think of a virtuosic violin facing off with an evenly matched blender, and you’re halfway there.
I’ve seen three operas now, so I’m hardly an aficionado, but I’ll admit I spent most of La Bohème wishing Mimì would hurry up and pop her clogs. Give me sudden earthquakes, financial collapse and Miami synth lines any day of the week. After all, isn’t unpredictability one of life’s only real certainties?
Could you talk a bit more about the title?
"Five hitmen, five catastrophes"
The show's called Dead Cat Bounce. In finance, the phrase describes this idea of when a huge crash happens and then there is a brief moment of recovery. In that suspended moment, you’re not sure if everything is going to suddenly return to normal, or continue to plummet. As they say, a dead cat thrown out of a window of a very tall building will still bounce.
All of the five stories have that slightly ambivalent relationship to catastrophe: is everything fine, has something really bad happened, or has the situation changed in such a way that we don't even know what’s good or bad any more?
Could you tell us how the idea came about and what it was like working together?
The three of us found ourselves in the pandemic in a reading group focused around the origin of statistics and the concept of luck in the 17th century. Then we got hooked on this story about the hitmen, which has an absurdist quality: five guys subcontract each other for a murder that never happens. So we started thinking about this as a kind of structure for the whole work. Five hitmen, five catastrophes.
One interesting aspect of this piece is that we had interesting stories to tell that are quite conceptual. But when you actually want to convey information, opera is one the shittest formats around – you often have to rely on the audience already knowing what the content is, because opera is famously difficult to understand. You can just about capture X loves Y, Y doesn’t love X, woman dies (which, unfortunately, still seems to be a go-to theme). And if there's anything more complex than that, you need to think about what the relationship is between music and text, set, costume and so on.
Even the medium is a recipe for disaster…
Haha, yes. I spend a lot of time thinking about setups – as well as composing, I’m a performer, and I’m also working on a PhD in comic timing in music at the moment. I’m interested in the way that you can use expectation for comic effect, but also in a non-funny way. I like to think of the big fall and little fall – the little fall is a literal slipping on a banana skin – funny; but then there is the big fall… from paradise, laughing at our own imperfection. I think the three of us really loaded DCB with some big fall humour, as well as there being (little) gags littered throughout.
Yeah, I think the same way that James looks very structurally at patterns, and at these sly shifts in context, Klara and I are both interested in sleights of hand embedded in concepts like time and money, as they've evolved historically. Often, in times of crisis, like a natural disaster or violent revolution, there’s a scramble to hold onto the basic organising principles of a social contract or reality – fundamental abstractions, like time, nationhood, money or nature – and you realise that you don't really know what they are at all. You have to try and reorganise them, or find another structure to replace them.
Yeah, and I think, within disaster, there's also this point when language doesn't really line up anymore with reality – there's a disruption, or cascade of simultaneous disruptions, a cascade of shit. There's a dissonance that is – intuitively or emotionally as well as intellectually – not very easy to resolve. It’s quite a fun structure to play with.
There’s a really funny part of Dead Cat Bounce where Gary and Klara are repeating corporate platitudes over the top of an intense bout of crying – ‘I want to be as helpful as possible’, ‘would I do things differently? Yes.’ Another cascade of shit? A big fall?
Yeah I think this bit is as funny as it is painful. The crying figure is Jeremiah, also known as ‘the weeping prophet’, and this is the story of him crying over the burning city. Then in front of him on the stage, we see two bankers speculating about the future in relation to the past and in doing so trampling on the present emotional response to the same events. And I think it’s both funny and painful because it’s somehow so realistic – where the audience might expect a fictional world, they’re instead given this corporate natter over the top. They’re given their own world in which this repetitive discussion of risk is given centre stage. But Jeremiah doesn’t leave, he continues to weep on his pedestal, because that’s all he knows.
"within disaster, there's also this point when language doesn't really line up anymore with reality"
It strikes me that you started forming these ideas during the pandemic. As you’ve said, our sense of time, nature and money became completely warped. Do you think the oratorio might provide a sense of relief or catharsis?
I found it strangely comforting to be reading about the ‘General Crisis of the Seventeenth Century’, which is a term first coined by the Marxist historianEric Hobsbawm . It was a historical period where global temperatures dropped by 1 degree c, which meant that harvests yielded less, trees took longer to grow, and fish died en masse. Wars and revolts, of which there was a historical high across the world, took longer and casualties were higher. On top of that, there was a financial crisis in Europe. Pestilence raged across the countries, long held beliefs fell apart in the face of new knowledge and the hollowing out of old ones and so on: pretty much everything that could possibly go wrong was going wrong, and you can hear the same kind of sense of doom that we might feel today. It’s fascinating to see that throughout history, there are these moments of rupture, and across different periods, the way that people express themselves – and the kind of mechanisms that we use in order to alleviate suffering or protect ourselves and our interests – tend to be quite similar.
You always feel like you're somewhere in the middle of your era, right? And when you have a big historical rupture, the rug gets pulled, you suddenly can't quite work out what time you're living in.
Definitely. During the time of the General Crisis, that's when the Divine Right of Kings and feudalism stopped being the dominant order. I feel like catastrophes have a way of putting everything into perspective.
"you suddenly can't quite work out what time you're living in"
Catastrophe is something that creates dis-order, but it might also be creating order at the same time?
Yes, in the story of the workers praying to the catfish deity to bring on an earthquake – the idea was to destroy the houses of the wealthy and let the riches flow through society. The villagers ask The Namazu (catfish) to ‘shake for us’ and ‘lick the bankers uvula’ from their ritualistic circle. The scene is one big crescendo with violin, viola, electric guitar, sousaphone and stones making the sound of The Namazu rubbing against the earth – it’s quite menacing as it stands tall facing the audience.
I think so. There's a quote in the opera from the French writer Abbé Raynal, which goes …will render universal this fatal catastrophe, which must, by necessity, detach one world from another He was speaking about the point in time when the Old World, Europe realised that they had to stop outsourcing all of their problems to the so-called ‘New World’, the colonies. News of slave revolts were spreading throughout Europe, and the Abbé Raynal, whose writings were then taken up by the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, basically said that the old colonial model would not protect Europe from this crisis: They had to let the colony go or this crisis would also engulf Europe. So, it's also the question of for how long can you subcontract the murder? How long can you outsource a problem to someone else before the catastrophe engulfs you?
By Sammi Gale
Gabriella Liandu - Mezzo-soprano
Meili Li – Countertenor
Geoff Clapham – Baritone
Sarah Farmer – Violin
Chihiro Ono – Viola
Aaron Diaz - Trumpet, Sousaphone
Louis D’Heudieres - Synths, Electronics, guitar
Choir - Waste Paper Opera Chorus
Gabriel Finn - Lighting Design
Daniel Ehrlich - Sound Engineering
Cover image: Ferguson Carmichael