You Who Will Emerge from the Flood, which is billed as the world’s first underwater opera, is the most exciting event in this year’s Queer Up North programme. The festival invited Los Angeles based opera singer Juliana Snapper, who has been pioneering a method of underwater swimming during performances in Ljubljana and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to rise to the unique challenge of staging an opera in Victoria Baths. Snapper has performed miniatures of the opera in dunk tanks in galleries and theatres, but Manchester will be treated to the full story.
The Baths will be perfect. To start with, the largest pool, the First Class Males Pool where the performance will take place, had to be filled with water again especially for the occasion. You Who Will Emerge is set in a watery, post-apocalypse wasteland and is based around the character of aquatic creature Blorkra, played by Snapper, who is the sole survivor. Victoria Baths itself is in a strange limbo between deserted museum piece and being restored to some kind of use.
There’s an intense atmosphere in the building which will perfectly complement Snapper’s performance. Submerged underwater with an oxygen tank and projected onto screens by video cameras, for Snapper underwater singing is as much an endurance test as the acrobatic feats of sporting disciplines.
She explains: “Singing opera is so physical. What I’m doing needs the intensity and exactitude of opera singing - it would be hard to sing country underwater for example.” She continues: “Opera singing is a steady stream of sound that gets more and more powerful. What I’m doing is a mutation of opera - it takes it further.”
Snapper explains: “I’m trying to find ways to make my instrument work differently, to change the relationship between myself and my instrument and to make different sounds from the instrument.” She describes her style as ‘radical opera’, admitting: “It sits uncomfortably between disciplines.”
One of the biggest challenges for Snapper - who admits she hates the cold, will be that the water in Victoria Baths is “horribly cold”. Snapper describes a past performance: “I went into a weird trance - the water was too cold - but luckily no-one noticed.”
You Who Will Emerge is based on a line from a poem inspired by Dante’s Inferno, 'I want to die collectively'. 'Brave' volunteers from the public will comprise the chorus, based around the edges of the pool, playing the ghosts of Blorkra’s earthly predecessors. Snapper elaborates: “The opera explores what it’s like to listen to other people.” Thrown together four days before the performance, most of the choir are not experienced singers, but will create a soundscape of different textures through the interaction between their voices, part scripted and part improvised, after just three rehearsals.
Snapper is a voice teacher by trade. She explains: “Everybody knows how to use their voice, but sometimes trained singers, like opera singers, get locked in a genre”. “Working with people’s voices makes me feel like I’ve given them something. It might sound egotistical, but it gives me a sense of pride if I can make any group of random people sound wonderful.”
Snapper had a bohemian childhood, growing up just outside Berkeley in California with her opera singer mother. Opera has always been part of her life. She explains: “I spent my misspent youth studying opera mad then sneaking out of the house to play opera”. Snapper admits “I’m an opera whore, I’ll go and see anything - there’s something wonderful about the spectacle of it”, but it was whilst studying at the Oberlin Conservatory she realised traditional forms of opera are too confining.
“I rebelled against the conservatory. The machinery of the opera industry made me feel sad. It was all about creating products and I was not a good product at the time”, she admits.
“I made my professional debut when I was 17 in the chorus of Tosca, but I preferred baroque and modern opera which allowed me to be creative”, explains Snapper. “In other opera you’re just an interpreter.”
“I went to graduate school in San Diego to do critical studies and experimental practises. I went into sound, design and theatrical installation work and did performances on the side. I assumed I’d continue as a scholar.”
It’s this merging of disciplines that characterises Snapper’s work. In the past, Snapper, who is completing a PHD in Musicology, has worked closely with the performance artist Ron Athey. She confides that “artists are generally a lot more fun and curious than musicians”.
You Who Will Emerge will feature animated videos and the music of the composer Anthony Infanti, as well as ballet by dancers in flesh coloured wetsuits inspired by the 'wedding cake' style choreography of Busby Berkeley, although Snapper describes it as “my first real solo project”.
Snapper explains: “You have to collaborate with people in opera. You can’t do it all yourself. Every piece is an operation to set up.”
She continues: “It’s like what’s happening in pop music at the moment. People are buying less music so more attention is put on the show.” She adds: “In America especially, you can’t sell opera - there’s not appeal for buying the experience.”
Snapper elaborates: “I don’t believe in the idea of the genius work, the idea of receiving inspiration from above, or the notion of the composer as vessel - over history, there’s been too much of a ‘husband composer’, ‘singer wife’ relationship.”
According to Snapper, “didactic opera with a moral message is really boring”. You Who Will Emerge, in contrast, will “convey a moment in time”. Snapper explains: “It’s not a super narrative opera - you just kind of tune into bits along the way.”
There will be some conventional aspects to the opera, however. Snapper says it’s a tragedy: “It’s an opera, she has to die.”
Snapper describes herself as ‘a punk and a feminist and a queer’, which she says helps create the meaning of the opera.
She is fascinated by the history of Victoria Baths: “I love the generosity of the baths as a public institution, and I'm interested in the way it was so hierarchical.
"They had creepy ideas of hygiene and an even creepier hierarchy of genders. What day of the week you swam on depended on how clean your water was - the men’s water was recycled and given to the women to swim in, which meant they got all the cooties. It reminded me of what I read about old baths in California which were segregated by race.”
Snapper defines opera as the combination of “intimacy and excess”. She notes: “Queers are good at combining the two.”
You Who Will Emerge will certainly be an intimate and exhilarating performance for those who are lucky enough to watch from the Bath's galleries, seeing the pool beneath come to life once more.
You Who Will Emerge, Victoria Baths, Hathersage Road, Sunday May 17, 8.30 - 9.15 pm.