Thrashing the Sea God

, UK

Jilted Love from Thrashing the Sea God

A genuine operatic story - adapted from a traditional Cantonese libretto - John McLeod's Thrashing the Sea God performed by Joby Burgess in a new realisation by director, Kally Lloyd-Jones.

With painted face Joby Burgess, in the costume and manner of a principal soprano (male) of the Imperial Chinese Opera of Canton, sings and plays his way through the story of the jilted and grief sticken wife, Jing Yanfa Dan.


Performances, August 2012


Music and Words: John McLeod

Performed by: Joby Burgess

Director: Kally Lloyd-Jones



"The 2012 Tête à Tête opera festival is continuing on the bold course begun in 2007. Over halfway through its breathless 18-day schedule, it all seems as fresh as when it started. Its sixth season contains some typically outlandish operatic gems, most relatively brief in length.

Amid this madness, John McLeod’s Thrashing the Sea God is notable for its originality and poignancy. Set in ancient China and composed for one person and a vast array of percussion, it stretches the definition of opera but does everything that a good opera should. A tragic story is told by a vulnerable, oddly beautiful character who is emotionally empowered through the music. It is a touching tale of a woman spurned when her husband leaves her for someone else. This bitter pill is made harder to swallow when the husband achieves the unrivalled honour of becoming First Scholar of China.

Dressed in a pastel green costume reminiscent of traditional Chinese dress, Joby Burgess cut an intriguing figure. He seemed completely inside his character, injecting his performance with emotion and sensitivity, with no inhibitions about performing as a distressed female, singing high up in his falsetto register.

The array of percussion is inspired by oriental musical heritage, creating a luscious texture of light, dark, pleasant and ominous sounds. Firstly, Burgess struck five small Peking opera gongs with expert sensitivity, making them seem to articulate a song of despair. The other four episodes achieved similar melodiousness; the vibraphone in particular was spine-chilling and the woodblocks, cowbells, Chinese and sizzle cymbals, bongos and congas at one station added up to a rich mixture of timbres. Burgess also made good use of the bell tree and mark tree’s contrasting effects.

Consistently, Burgess’ talent is to make drums sing. He makes percussion less implements to be hit and more harmonious instruments to be stroked into life. The range of sounds he coaxed from the five stations on this occasion was wonderfully unpredictable, captivating and imbued with constant momentum. Added to the musical success was a recurring dramatic motif of tearing up the sheet music after each orchestral episode – intended, presumably, to symbolise the protagonist’s hatred of the scholarship for which her departed husband has honoured.

The ending was simple but powerfully tragic. In silence, Burgess took up a knife, held it high and plunged it into his chest. Like the rest of the opera, it was dramatic, bittersweet, and enacted with finesse."

Katy S Austin, BachTrack, August 2012

Full Review


"Burgess sang the soprano role well, in an appropriately strained falsetto, and his percussion playing was colourful and incredibly skilful throughout. Everything about his performance was in keeping with the character and he never stopped being the wife throughout – every percussion episode preceded by a martial arts style poised posture. McLeod’s music captured the story with skill and a musical rhetoric that exploited the possible colours of the percussion with aplomb, tinged with something of the Orient.

This was a beautifully conceived piece of music theatre, with the lighting sensitively balanced to capture the dramatic moments well. It will always require a percussionist of virtuosic skill to capture the sheer range expected in McLeod’s music and Burgess seemed ideal for the role."

Steven Berryman, I Care If You Listen, September 2012

Full Review



Images from the Tête à Tête opera festival 2012 © Claire Shovelton