Review by Lewis Ingham
Bathed in blue light, the metal and glass dunk-tank sits wedged between two projector screens, cold and foreboding against the warm red interior of Bendigo’s Capital Theatre. You Who Will Emerge From the Flood, an underwater opera composed by Juliana Snapper with Andrew Infanti, explores themes of violence, gender, and sexuality in a captivating performance on the opening night of 2017 Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music.
The work commences with a pre-recorded piano track. The loose rhythms and harsh timbres of the gently out of tune piano dissolve into a subtle layer of synthesised sounds. A pencil-drawn animation of a lonely and naked figure emerging from a body of water flashes across the projector screens. The figure appears androgynous until its breasts emerge from the water. This sequence of images repeats, but with each viewing you feel there are subtle changes to the shading and details of the animation, much like the subtly expanding piano melody.
Snapper emerges from behind one of the screens, climbing onto the dunk-tank and allowing her costume to be taken in by the audience. She wears a dress with blonde wig hair spouting from beneath the hem, like a vast mane of pubic hair. Holding herself on the outer rim of the tank, a new part in the electronic track takes off, this time an artificial choir dominating the sonic palette. Accompanying this new section are projected images of motionless bodies floating in water, this imagery adding a sinister feeling to the water on stage and suggesting why Snapper has not yet touched the water.
A strong moment of silence follows, which is broken by Snapper singing a solo passage of German text. There is no translation for the text, but the nineteenth-century expressionist quality of the music evokes a carnivalesque, ritualistic quality to the way Snapper has displayed herself so far.
Snapper lowers herself into the water slowly and deliberately, the microphones placed around the tank amplifying the sounds of the water and her body against the container. As a key moment in this opera, there is an innate theatricality to Snapper’s first plunge into the water. At first I feel she has no control and resents the water, her costume ungracefully floating through the water and exposing her crotchless outfit. The dunk-tank itself is a machine of ritual humiliation and it’s quite confronting to see the performer force herself beneath the surface whether intentional or not. Eventually Snapper wrestles control of her movements, pulling herself from the water and onto a metal swing suspended just above the liquid’s surface.
There is a sense of the performer exploring the distance between herself and the water as she emits sharp melodic inhalations and exhalations centimetres above the surface. This is further enhanced by a close-up live camera feed, which is projected onto the two screens, magnifying Snapper’s interactions with the water. The camera also allows Snapper to add nuances to her presence in the tank, magnifying her physical efforts to stare into the camera or press her body against the glass. The water in the tank frames the performance and Snapper’s interplay with this voyeuristic frame may be perceived as sexualised or distressing.
The sound of underwater singing isn’t entirely unexpected; a torrent of bubbles with muffled, yet discernible, pitch. More affecting is Snapper’s strong accentuation and treatment of her breathing. When transitioning between singing above and below water, Snapper’s breaths are deep, shallow, melodic, or a frightening gasp. I catch myself holding my breath as I watch Snapper move through the water. This sense of empathy is enhanced by the heavy amplification of her breathing and the sudden loud bangs as she brushes against the tank.
Elements suggest repressive violence: the volume of her underwater singing fading with the depth of her submersion, or the fact that Snapper’s vocal passages from within her watery cell are purely syllabic with the removal of full words. Between the screens and the tank, the audience can watch the performer drown in full sight, even though there is uncertainty as to whether this is forced or not. While Snapper dives alone in the tank, the screens display a video of Snapper being violently dunked and held under the water by two men.
The electronic tracks operate like interludes in the latter stages of the work, Snapper adding drama to these interludes by fully submerging herself. Normally the electronic tracks feature synthesised sounds rather than recorded samples, however, the final electronic section features an eerie vocal duet between a real male and female voice. The uncertain fluidity of the melody begs a final question, are they singing with or against each other?
The stage plunges into darkness, not allowing the audience to witness Snapper exit the tank. Only her faint splashing is heard in the blackness of the theatre. You Who Will Emerge From the Flood is as confronting as it is captivating with Snapper demonstrating her ability to expand vocal technique and performance. With the reemergence of the lights the soprano takes her well deserved bow whilst towelling herself off.
You Who Will Emerge From the Flood
Juliana Snapper and Miller Puckette
Bendigo Capital Theatre
Bendigo International Festival of Exploratory Music
1 September 2017