A few miles before reaching the Thames Barrier, the ship emitted several high-pitched wails. For those not in the know, this might have been mistaken for Morse code. For the ship’s crew it was music.
To be more precise, it was 1513: A Ships’ Opera, a day-long extravaganza created by the sculptor Richard Wilson and the visual artist duo Zatorski + Zatorski. Part of the multi-arts Mayor’s Thames Festival, this opera boasted no singers, no stage, no plot – at least not in the traditional sense. Instead, the narrative consisted of the 40-mile river voyage from the mouth of the Thames Estuary to Tower Bridge. And the score was formed by the sounds of the ships’ vintage sirens, hooters, bells and whistles, arranged in scripted order by Wilson and the experimental musician Ansuman Biswas.
The occasion was intended to mark the 500th anniversary of the mariners’ petition to King Henry VIII about the lack of safe pilotage on the River Thames, and to celebrate London’s maritime history. Accordingly, 1513: A Ships’ Opera spotlighted, not its instrumentalists, but its ships. Like all the passengers, the musicians were made inconspicuous in black boiler suits.
Having boarded the Barking, the renovated steam tug dating from 1928 that began the operatic journey at Chatham, I was one of eight spectators to experience the performance from the beginning, at 7.30am, to the end, 14 hours later (most of the audience saw only the finale from the shore at Tower Bridge). The reward was a sense of narrative completion that would have eluded those viewing one section in isolation. It also allowed for audience participation: all passengers took turns to steer the ship and shovel coal.
Notwithstanding these perks, the first act offered a limited scenery dotted with incinerators, waste heaps and derelict factories – remainders of a once thriving maritime industry. And the music amounted to the odd blast from the ship’s three whistles, manfully operated by on-board musician Sean Dower. For an event promoted as a celebration of London’s river, it seemed more like an ode to urban decay.
Only 11 hours later did it start to feel like a performance. As we finally approached Trinity Buoy Wharf for Act II, we were met by an armada of ships, each announcing its presence with mournful horn calls. For a few minutes they circled each other, as if in ghostly combat, creating clusters of discords that echoed hauntingly across the water.
But the culmination came in Act III. Against the illuminated backdrop of the Shard and Tower Bridge, the armada unveiled its entire instrumental armoury in a maritime symphony. An ear-splitting series of calls and responses ricocheted between the vessels, punctuated by cannon fire from HMS Belfast and conducted by Biswas from the top of Trinity Lightship. For sheer spectacle, it was definitely worth seeing. And for a short while it was worth hearing. An hour later the charm had worn thin, eroded by the interminable honking.
As an experiment, 1513: A Ships’ Opera was certainly imaginative, and a bold – if loose – interpretation of what opera actually is. But with theatrical eruptions so few and far between and a soundscape of such limited variety, it fell short of sustaining interest for 14 hours. To the uninitiated observer, this would have been all too easy to confuse with a rather noisy river cruise.