MICROmegas is Tom Floyd and David Spittle’s fourth operatic collaboration. Based on Voltaire’s short story, it follows an exiled giant and a stammering dwarf on their trip across the universe in search of adventure and truth.
Premier – The Riverside Studios, August 2013
Court Spectator, Cabin Boy and Monk 2 – Alex Bevan
Micromegas, Pere Jules – Jan Capinski
Court Spectator, Cabin Boy and Dwarf – Richard Downing
The Muffty, The Captain and Monk 3 – Robert Garland
Drunk Girl 2, The Poet and Monk 1 – Sophie Goldrick
Drunk Girl 1, The Cartographer and Barbra – Emily Griffiths
Composer/conductor: Tom Floyd
Librettist: David Spittle
Director: Anna Koukoullis
Designer: Cécile Trémolières
Lighting Designer: Jamie Platt
Anthony Burgess’ Mozart and the Wolf Gang, in which a number of composers meet in the afterlife, has Mendelssohn telling Wagner that he is not a seven-foot Siegfried but “a small man with no neck”. Not that there’s a requirement for creative artists to resemble their characters, but it’s hard not to notice that Tom Floyd and David Spittle, composer and librettist of MICROmegas, which played this weekend at the Tête à Tête opera festival at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios, are both at least six foot three. Is this what attracted them to Voltaire’s story of a character from one of the planets orbiting Sirus, said to be 20,000 feet tall, deciding to visit Earth? Either way, Floyd was also conducting, and we may be sure that the musicians at the back had no trouble seeing him.
As this is a work in progress, we have just three scenes from Voltaire’s original seven. The first sees Micromegas banished from his home world for comparing snails and fleas, snails being an object of worship and reverence in this society (a nice touch to make the swirly pattern of a snail’s shell the official symbol of this obviously fascist society) and fleas being… well, just fleas really. After a brief interlude set amongst humans on a boat exploring the Arctic, we rejoin Micromegas as he arrives at a kind of monastery on Saturn, encountering a man merely 6,000 feet tall whom he nicknames “Dwarf”. The sceptical Micromegas, as is his wont, immediately causes upset by questioning the empty rituals the depressed monks fill their days with.
Voltaire’s short story, written a few decades after Gulliver’s Travels, is one of the earliest pieces of science fiction, and the origin of the trope “What would a Martian think if he came to Earth and saw X?” In other words, Voltaire was using science fiction as a way to examine the society around him. Before the performance, Spittle explained in great detail what was to happen in every scene, but oddly not the way the two strands of the story would eventually come together when Micromegas encounters the humans on the boat and inquires into their worldview, which would have been worth knowing about.
The libretto includes some absolute gems – “Cold toes and a broken compass / Don’t make a man Columbus”, says the embittered Poet to the vainglorious Captain of the beleaguered Arctic vessel – though at times we’re reminded that Voltaire doesn’t sound too PC to modern ears: “Behind every successful man is a woman he had to overcome”. Floyd’s music, not unlike mid-period Britten, is written with a lyrical understanding of the human voice not always found in modern classical music. And between Jan Capinski as Micromegas, Richard Downing as the Dwarf, Robert Garland as the Captain, Sophie Goldrick as the Poet and Emily Griffiths as Barbra, there isn’t a weak link in the singing.