Jo Songi in BonesongJulia Carolyn Lichnova

Sitting beneath the Zoology Museum’s pygmy right whale last Friday, I was reminded just how spoilt we are in Cambridge. Not only are we blessed with well-stocked libraries and the biggest Wetherspoons in the UK, but where else, save perhaps the trendiest of Shoreditch venues, could you listen to cutting-edge ‘underground’ opera from under a canopy formed by one of the world’s most obscure mammals?

The team behind ‘Carmen Elektra’ are definitely on to something. This Hallowe’en-themed treat in the caverns of the New Museums Site bore witness to the project’s growth since its more humble beginnings, only last term, in Clare Cellars. Billed as a highlight of Michaelmas, it would seem that the Carmen Elektrolytes’ promises that opera can be short, fat-lady-less and actually pretty good haven’t fallen on deaf ears. Barely a third of the queue of hopefuls that snaked through the car park all the way to Fitzbillies were lucky enough to get in.

Zoological Museum: on a par with 'spoons?Julia Carolyn Lichnova

What did the others miss? Kate Whitley and Joe Snape’s Bonesong, a new opera commissioned especially for the event, was a promising opener with accomplished performances from both singers and instrumentalists. Jo Songi gave us the simpering, helpless sister with the vocal agility and dramatic skill to which we have become accustomed in her performances, while Josephine Stephenson was the very picture and sound of a little boy (despite being a girl).

Paradoxically, the decision to use microphones, usually reserved for musical theatre, made it difficult to follow the characters’ words at times.  Stephenson, though, managed to puncture every syllable through Snape’s curdling electronica, and Whitley’s cacophony of blood-lusting notes, even when lying recumbent at the hands of Johnny Langridge’s murderous vulture.

The phantom of the opera, Langridge’s  "ugly old scavenger bird", was acted with impressive conviction and sung with flawless command. If only we could have seen and heard more of Langridge and the other fine singers. There’s certainly room for expansion of Bonesong - and perhaps some revision: at times I did feel I lost track of the supposed plot, while Conrad Steel’s somewhat antiquated libretto may have restricted the development of a complete sense of musical lyricism.

Yet with highlights such as the musically impressive death of the brother, in which Snape’s electronic interpolations and Whitley’s compositional skill interact in the name of destruction, Bonesong shows real promise as a work. I just wish there had been more.

On the other hand, I could have done with rather less of HK Gruber’s Frankenstein! While the first few of the 20 minutes of this grotesque ‘pan-demonium’ were undeniably amusing as Thom Andrewes, our chansonnier for the evening, unraveled his protagonist’s complicated psyche, the promised radicalism of a new orgiastic staging tired quickly.

Nonetheless, Andrewes imparted the libretto’s nonsensical flying circus bats and roasted goats impressively through a no-frills baritone. Praise must go to the orchestra too, who can’t have had that much fun in a long time. Under Will Gardner’s baton, they were probably the best thing about Frankenstein, singing and playing kazoos and tin whistles in addition to their usual instruments.

The Elektrolytes have created something huge, getting more students seeing and hearing opera. As the event grows and the team learn from experience, Carmen Elektra has the potential to be MASSIVE. Let’s just hope that no Soho-ites, or indeed SoHo-ites, sign them up before Cambridge has heard more from them.

Grotesque Pandemonium? Frankenstein!!Andrew Tindall

More photos online here.