Fleeting Opera
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Fleeting Opera 2000, Contemporary Floating Opera for the River Thames
Battersea Park 26 July   Parliament & South Bank 27 July
by Max Couper
with Trevor Wishart, Sasha Kingston & Tom Sapsford

The Couper Collection with
The Royal Opera,
The Royal Ballet,
and Judi Dench

Artists appearing with the kind permission of The Royal Opera House

Fleeting Opera. View from Parliament, 27 July 2000

The Cast





Kate McCarney

Nicholas Heath

Jonathan Fisher

Tom Sapsford
Deborah Bull

Judi Dench



Double Bass: 

Ruth Shaddock

Katherine Wilson

Tony Hougham

Dean Leslie
Paul Mitchell

Judi Dench, Narrator
The Intriguer

Deborah Bull,
Royal Ballet Principal

Kate McCarney,
Royal Opera Mezzo-Soprano

Dean Leslie
The Winchman

Nicholas Heath,
Royal Opera Tenor

Tom Sapsford, Royal Ballet
Photos by Timothy N. Holt

Fleeting Opera (episode one, Birthrite) was visual artist and performance composer Max Couper’s first opera for the Thames, created from The Couper Collection barges where he has worked for twenty years. This Opera was created with composer Trevor Wishart, Royal Ballet dancer and choreographer Tom Sapsford, and textile artist Sasha Kingston. Max Couper's last performance was a dance spectacle presented with his tugboat for the city of Antwerp in 1996.

This Fleeting Opera, London’s first opera on the Thames, was performed on two consecutive nights of July 2000, first for public audiences alongside Battersea Park, and then for audiences by Lambeth and for members on the terraces of The Houses of Parliament. This was a promenade opera, towed into the incoming evening tides by Max Couper in his tug Pablo, with the audience walking slowly alongside on the riverbank.

This ritualistic opera and ballet centred on a matriarchal pregnant soprano and two male singers of The Royal Opera, two dancers of The Royal Ballet, three musicians from The Orchestra of The Royal Opera House, and actress Judi Dench. They performed to the audience from two towed barges, with an onboard sound and light system. The performance was delivered in fleeting sequences and based around a computer generated soundtrack overlaid with live voice and instrumentation. The singers performed in different metres to one another in an invented language, and a trumpeter, violinist and double bass player accompanied them. Judi Dench delivered a metred prose in English, whilst the dancers interacted and interpreted. There were two winchmen that handled the barges whilst they were under tow. They alternately pull them together or release them, according to the interaction of the performers to one another.

Birthrite was a contemporary ritual, created for the Thames, based around a pregnant matriarch who represents the spirit of the Thames as a force for life and renewal. This matriarch, Angelica (Mezzo-soprano Kate McCarney), has two admirers: Capo (baritone Jonathan Fisher), and Diablo (tenor Nicolas Heath). Capo is red-blooded; Diablo is diabolical and a chameleon.

The matriarch and her admirers were singers of The Royal Opera. Each had an inseparable accompanying musician from the Orchestra of The Royal Opera House. There was a trumpet player called Trumpèt (Ruth Shaddock); she performed with the matriarch, Angelica. The Bull (double-bassist Tony Hougham) performed with Capo. The Fly (violinist Katherine Wilson) performed with Diablo. There was also a narrator on the second night, The Intriguer (Judi Dench). The dancers, Amazonia (Deborah Bull), and Atoll (Tom Sapsford) were the provocateurs and interpreters – they were the dynamic drive element linking all parts of the event together. Finally, there were two winchmen of great strength that handled the barges (Dean Leslie and Paul Mitchell).

“Any opportunity to be part of Max Couper’s waterborne artwork that brings together opera, ballet, and the spoken word, I find irresistible. The last time any such serious artistic statement was created and performed for the river, was Handel’s Water Music in 1717. I passionately believe the Thames is underused. This is so valuable because it draws attention to it in a spirited way.”

Judi Dench

“This Opera represents what the Thames meant to people long before us: for thousands of years into pre-history it was a symbol of life and fertility. The Thames is an unownable force that can inspire and connect people. This River has always been subject to a swirling mass of complimentary and colourful influences arriving from over the seas, Fleeting Opera is no exception.”

Max Couper

Concept, Composition, and Direction: Max Couper

Composition and Musical direction: Trevor Wishart

Choreography: Tom Sapsford

Costume Design: Sasha Kingston

Assistant Director: Dean Leslie

Couper Collection Producers: Dawn Ellis, Carole Tongue

Production Manager: Adrian Bristow

Rig Masters: Christian Calissendorff, Sasha Kingston

Stage Managers: Laura Benedict, Kara M. Kinsch (assistant)

Tug Skipper: Max Couper, Pete Wilder (assistant)

Barge Skipper: Terry Wilmot

Hands: Veerle Emboo, Charlotte Kingston

Publicity: Maddi Morton, Chris Millard

Photography: Timothy N. Holt, David Graeme-Bater, Gautier DeBlonde

Programme Production: The Designers Collective, Christian Calissendorff

Video: Sara Nason

Costumes Maker: Tony Wood

Set Fabric Maker: Ian Gray of Lonton & Gray, Burnham-on-Crouch

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