Performance review: The Blood Vote, Gasworks Arts Park

Fusing opera and circus, The Blood Vote by composer Jenny Game and librettist Caitlin Vincent sees Australian suffragist Vida Goldstein face the inevitability of Invention.

In a new work billed as “a circus opera” by composer Jenny Game and librettist Caitlin Vincent, we meet the influential and pioneering suffragist and pacifist, Vida Goldstein (1869-1949) and, alongside her, the fictional character Invention, a commanding figure symbolic of modernism and technological progress.

Accompanied by two acrobats (the Circus Machine) who add further captivating perspective across its 60 minutes, what unfurls in The Blood Vote is a strong and engaging sense of purpose. 

Goldstein (Judith Dodsworth) and Invention (Giovanni De Simone) stand before you as spirited humans in a quasi-debate-like and neatly measured theatrical performance. Vincent’s libretto – spread across seven scenes chronologically tracing Goldstein’s persistence and belief in social justice and equal rights, especially women’s rights – is enlightening in concept and impactful in effect.

The Blood Vote takes its name from an anti-conscription pamphlet produced in 1916 by the Women’s Peace Army, over which Goldstein presided, and the title’s significance gradually becomes clear. 

Vincent cleverly establishes a concurrent parallel and friction between Goldstein’s furthering of social justice and Invention’s furthering of technological advancement. Goldstein’s palpable despondency that technology’s manipulation and employment in war and its (unfair) outracing of social change is keenly outlined. So, too, is her failure to secure a seat in the Australian Parliament after four attempts. 

But, after the climactic moment when Invention eventually crumbles in a mess, the work signs off with a beacon of optimism as the two sing, ‘Let’s build something new. Together.’ Selflessness and optimism, it appears, are two of the greatest weapons available for humankind’s betterment. One can only hope for healthier debate given the global climate. 

Game’s vocal score for soprano and bass brings voice-type opposites into play with overall pleasing results – a score notably attentive to the opportunity for humanity and poignancy to shine through. Dodsworth’s articulate, full-bodied and broad-ranged singing is inclined to an overworked vibrato but Goldstein is a tireless, direct and affable character in her portrayal. At her side, or never too far away, young developing artist De Simone makes impressively smooth and robust work of Invention to pair with Dodsworth through their uneasy but endearing relationship.

The compositional writing accompanying the vocal score (for two violins, viola and cello), however, rarely seems to take off. Its fractured dissonances seemingly ache for increased colourisation and vitality, especially so for the musical passages that support Circus Machine, to which acrobats Lily Akers and Josh Duncan enthrall with their superhuman skills of unified strength and flexibility.

Read: Dance review: Architect of the Invisible, State Theatre Centre of Western Australia

Costumes reflecting the early 19th century merely paint a picture in director Jamie Henson’s otherwise non-contextualised but spare and effective setting. Henson’s astute eye for both focused and peripheral happenings, despite some hiccups in scene-to-scene movement, brings the work together commendably.

Goldstein and Invention invariably look on as the Circus Machine mesmerises. They see humanity being capable of great things with the fusion of all parts appearing most evident in Invention’s ‘mad scene’ as Akers and Duncan individually rotate through hoops, bringing to mind the blend of art and science in Michelangelo’s Vitruvian Man, as Invention rapidly deteriorates. Following, even in death, Goldstein’s voice resonates and ideas flourish as the Circus Machine twirls on ropes. 

The Blood Vote is a noteworthy work that tests our conscience while exploring both human errors and possibilities as a vehicle for change. It also unequivocally reflects the importance of critical artistic endeavours that reinforce Goldstein’s so fleetingly but powerfully put words, ‘Turns out it’s hard to kill ideas’.

The Blood Vote
Composer: Jenny Game
Librettist: Caitlin Vincent
Director: Jamie Henson
Allotropy Quartet:
Violin 1 – Kat Tsyrlin
Violin 2 – Victoria Howse
Viola – Catherine Turnbull
Cello – Lachlan Dent
Vida Goldstein – Judith Dodsworth
Invention – Giovanni De Simone
Circus Machine – Lily Akers, Josh Duncan

Gasworks Theatre, Gasworks Arts Park, Albert Park
11-14 October 2023
As part of Melbourne Fringe Festival

Also known as 'OperaChaser', Paul's passion for opera in performance spans more than 30 years. Paul's foray into the world of reviewing began as Opera Australia's inaugural Critic-in-Training. For the past 10 years Paul has reviewed opera both locally and internationally for a variety of publications including Melbourne’s Herald Sun, London-based Bachtrack, Limelight and Australian Arts Review.