In this opera set in London in 1945, Michael is a twelve year old boy whose father has recently been killed in a bombing raid. The other principal character is Kurt Schwitters, founder of the Dadaist art movement, who at this time is penniless and has only two years to live. Both man and boy obsessively collect bus tickets. Schwitters finds tickets in random places and uses them in his collages to emphasise a natural state of human chaos. The young Michael, however, has a burning desire to create some sort of order out of the chaos in the aftermath of the war and so strives to find enough tickets to put together a full set. One day on a bus, Michael and Kurt make a grab for the same discarded ticket...
It is London, 1945. The war is over. Much of Britain is exhausted. The fields have not been farmed. The factories are silent. The country is still largely in a state of chaos.
Michael is twelve. His father worked as a night warden on a London rooftop. He was killed in a bomb raid.
Kurt Schwitters, the great German artist, is in London in the last two years of his life. Ill and penniless, he was famous in the art world as a founder of the DADA movement along with Duchamp and Ernst. But most of Schwitters’ life-work of collages and assemblages were destroyed in a bomb raid on Hanover.
Michael collects bus tickets. He wants a complete collection. He hunts everywhere for his tickets. He is passionate about making a perfect collection. Michael’s hobby reflects his instinctive interests. He wants to create order out of a scattered world. He is a very conservative boy, he is keen to put bus tickets back in their natural order. As if to say – I am making order out of chaos.
Kurt collects bus tickets. He regularly takes a bus from his miserable room in north London. He collects the paper items of the day to make into a collage. He is especially keen on bus tickets. Kurt’s attitude to bus tickets reflects his artistic instincts. The old artist resists order. He uses the tickets as part of his apparently random collages. As if to say – I am underlining human chaos.
One day, on a bus, Kurt and Michael make a grab for the same discarded ticket…
Nyman's music uses all his familiar traits of sometimes jaunty or restless ostinato. The text sings very clearly with the accompaniment of tea-shop violins and jokey xylophone solos.
The role of Michael was taken with confidence and assurance by the treble William Sheldon … he conveyed just the right mixture of childish intensity and carelessness. Vivian Tierney as his mother suggested all the weariness of a young woman whose aspirations and emotions have been crushed by the experience of war. She also doubled as the other female characters, a passenger with a desirable ticket, a bus conductor and a museum attendant. As Schwitters, John Graham-Hall created a character not only believable as a mature artist who has withdrawn from the world, but with an alluring mixture of fanaticism and modesty. His two wordless arias were both sublime demonstrations of this singer's imaginative bravura, the first in which he entertains the boy with a 'sneeze' poem, and the second when he attempts - to the mother's horror - to imitate a V-2 Rocket. This was a comic performance in the great tradition of vaudevillian opera.
Paul McGrath conducted the Almeida Ensemble in a polished performance, bringing out all the nuances, such as 'cake-walk played adagio' so that it became an Argentinian tango. Michael Hasting's story, one of the best librettos about the creative life, made for a thoroughly stimulating evening.
Patrick O'Connor, Opera Magazine, 01/09/2004
From the moment the Almeida Ensemble started tuning, you knew Nyman hadn't changed his spots: here were the hurrying pulsations and chugging ostinatos on woodwind and strings which are his trademark. The concrete cubes which covered the stage, plus the computer-generated back-projections, indicated hi-tech post-modern chic we have come to expect. And when the man, the boy, and his mother appeared as though on a double-decker bus, while Schwitters-style collages of tickets, buses, and bus routes appeared as a backdrop, everything seemed in place.
Hasting's unfussy libretto, with its graceful alternations of comedy and pathos, came across beautifully in this intimate space - at first one was more aware of it than the music, which felt like more of the same. But then one realised it wasn't: after some patches of Sondheim, the vocal style settled into Britten mode; Nyman had moved on. Each short scene got a different colouring, but the singers actually got arias, if of a strained and high-pitched variety.
And as the boy and the German made friends, and the mother and the German made peace (though not love), an engaging spell was cast.
No praise can be too high for young William Sheldon as the boy and Vivian Tierney as his mother, while John Graham-Hall's incarnation was a heroic piece of virtuosity. This heartfelt work rose far above pastiche.
Michael Church, Independent, 20/07/2004
Obsession is clearly an obsessive topic for Michael Nyman. His first opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was about a man who coped with a mental problem by repeating melodies in his head. His new opera Man and Boy concerns the unlikely relationship between the ageing and ailing Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, exiled in wartime London, and the schoolboy who shares his obsession with collecting London Transport bus tickets.
These are congenial topics for Nyman because obsessiveness is his music's natural state. He takes a tiny idea such as a back-and-forth motion between two chords, and worries away at it relentlessly. The moment it's wrung dry he drops is without remorse and leaps straight to a new one.
What's new about this opera is the way obsessiveness has been given a tender, nostalgic tone. Writing this opera has clearly been a trip down memory lane for Nyman and his librettist Michael Hastings, who were both avid collectors of bus tickets and football cards in the post-war years. But there's a patterned formality about the back-projected images and the set design, which keeps sentimentality at bay.
William Sheldon gives an astonishingly assured performance as the 13-year-old Michael, negotiating Nyman's often wilfully awkward lines with total aplomb.
…a subtle and touching piece of music-theatre.
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telegraph, 20/07/2004
[Nyman's] new Almeida opera, on a tender, thoughtful, engaging libretto by Michael Hastings - far too wordy for opera, one might have thought, but in fact it works beautifully - is another odd but genuine success. It will surely travel widely.
From the start, Nyman supplies a constant, canny period-dance score: robust and loud … Man and Boy should prosper to still more touching effect.
David Murray, Financial Times, 19/07/2004
The second half is increasingly involving, and genuinely operatic; words matter more, and they are underpinned more convincingly by Nyman's score, with its usual mixture of tonal riffs and sly acquisitions.
It has all been beautifully staged by Lindsay Posner, with designs by Jeremy Herbert making virtuoso use of video projections. Paul McGrath conducts the 10-piece ensemble, while the three singers are very special indeed: John Graham-Hall's portrayal of Schwitters is funny and deeply touching (his performances of a couple of "sound poems" are real tours de force); William Sheldon is superb as Michael, getting to grips with a whole wash of adult baggage, while Vivian Tierney takes on a whole gallery of cameos from bus conductor to BBC interviewer, as well as giving the mother real warmth and dignity.
Andrew Clements, Guardian, 17/07/2004
According to the rules, an opera lives more from the music than from the plot. In the case of the opera "Man and Boy: DADA," which premiered on Saturday in the Little House of the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe, it was exactly the other way around. Whether librettist Michael Hastings wanted to write a piece about the obsession of collecting bus tickets or an artist drama, what came out is an opera which once again takes up the great themes of the 20th century: the terror of World War II, the horror of the Nazi dictatorship, the loss of the family and the home. This is all highlighted, as if in passing, in the 19 short scenes.
The multi-layered mesh of relationships which develops between three people in post-war London, is as gripping as it is touching. There is the unusual friendship, which remains constant despite mutual disappointments, between the boy Michael and the old, impoverished artist in exile, Kurt Schwitters. And there is the tender, budding affection between Kurt and Michael's mother. The psychological studio theatre atmosphere among these three people, which alternates between comedy and tragedy, is the trump card of "Man and Boy," cleverly staged with a light hand by director Robert Tannenbaum.
"Man and Boy: DADA" is a chamber opera for three voices. The vocal parts composed by Michael Nyman are sophisticated without ever rising to obliging melodies or expressive outbursts. Instead, each of the soloists has a smashing role, stage fodder for singers with stage presence and joy in acting.
More interesting than the vocal roles is Nyman's orchestral score of forward driving rhythms, abrupt mood changes, tributes to swing music, calculated discord, and a minimalistic tango of scarcity. This music plays with timbres, emphasizes the plot without ever wanting to take over the lead role, and with Wolfgang Heinzel and the concentrated musicians of the Badische Staatskapelle it is in the best hands. "Man and Boy: DADA" is one of the few operas in the past year that was successful due to its stageworthiness and the effect it produced on the public.
Nike Luber, Badisches Tagblatt, 15/03/2004