Tippett’s Ice Break in Birmingham

Tippett’s The Ice Break is more often written about than performed and it is not difficult to understand why. Though the music has energy and, being predominantly lyrical, falls gratefully on the ear, the plot is chaotic and the libretto sometimes obscure, sometimes portentous. The themes – racial and political identity, self- and sexual expression – were and remain resonantly modish, but the problem has always been how to stage the piece in a coherent and convincing way. Graham Vick and his Birmingham Opera Company have come up with the best possible solution. Take it into the community, engage singers from across the racial spectrum, involve large numbers as chorus or extras and then present the opera as a promenading experience in a large warehouse. For a work which functions through a succession of images rather than a linear structure, the kaleidoscopic effect, with dramatic incidents emerging on different planes, surrounded by the choreographed movements of the crowd, works when a conventional staging would not. Clearly, from the Arts Council perspective, the event ticked all the right boxes, so money was available for Birmingham’s own magnificent symphony orchestra; and under the baton of Andrew Gourlay they provided a very convincing account of Tippett’s score. All of the solo singers were good. Did it matter that they could not get all of the text across to the audience? I think not: for this piece it is sufficient that the musical idiom combines with key dramatic images