Stan Silverman, the composer of Elephant Steps describes the theme of his and Richard Foreman’s 1968 avant-garde opera as ‘the search for spirituality and enlightenment’. It’s true that the show does offer a 75 minute stretch where you can completely zone out and consider your fragile place on this earth, or just relax if you prefer (I counted three sleeping people in the audience at various points) – but I’m not sure that’s what Stan was going for. I’d be surprised if Stan really knows what Stan was going for.

But hey, it was the sixties, so we can forgive a surrealist, occult mixed-genre opera with an incoherent and vague narrative in which elephant ears and cucumbers are produced at random in oddly-pitched attempts at light relief, right? Well no, neither I or my long-suffering companion could (he went to great pains to let me know he was only applauding to celebrate the fact it was over).

This is a UK premiere for Elephant Steps in its 50th anniversary year, brought to the Arcola by Patrick Kennedy as part of the Grimeborn opera festival. If you’re a dedicated musicophile with the kind of eclectically obscure taste you love to bore on about at parties, there might be something for you here. There are nods to The Beatles and Ravi Shankar in the score. We thought we heard a phrase from West Side Story but I’m starting to wonder now if that was wishful hearing. Maybe the incense had gone to our heads by that point.

The internet assures me there is actually a plot to Elephant Steps, but I’m damned if I could discern one. I’m not convinced it would have improved the experience in any case – the only thing that would, possibly, is being transported back to 1968 to watch it with a litre of mescaline as my date. Maybe it constituted a genuinely trippy ‘spectacular’ back then, but it just looked tired and overwrought to us. Any darkness or menace is lost in an overwhelming, one-note ridiculousness that becomes dull very quickly – and that’s the biggest elephant in the room.

Reviewed by April Delaney


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