Synthetica, by Karen Wimhurst

I LIKE to think I am pretty good at recycling plastic, avoiding buying things that are packaged or wrapped in plastic and reusing as much as I can. But then I look around the kitchen or even my desk and realise how difficult it is to avoid it.

Pens, clip-top boxes, the computer mouse, light switches, the washing-up bowl … I don’t know what things like computers or phones are made of, but I suspect they have lots of plastic bits … and so it goes.

Plastic was an amazing invention – it was, as Synthetica eloquently shows, a genuinely democratic product. It was so cheap to produce that it made everyday objects affordable for ordinary people, and it reduced the demand for unsustainable materials from the natural world – like ivory, amber, coral or the lac beetle.

It was lighter than wood, stone or metal, and you could go on using it, year after year. It seemed to be indestructible. Its versatility made it indispensable to the military in two world wars and it was the house-wife’s friend – labour-saving and easy to keep clean.

For decades it was the miracle gift that kept on giving. But gradually environmentalists, scientists, fishermen, gardeners, writers, conservationists and people who walked on beaches, in forests, on heathlands and in city parks, anyone who had their eyes open, began to see plastic waste everywhere. And with the growing awareness of the plastic littering the land came an even more frightening understanding of the way plastic was invading the rivers and oceans.

It’s barely a blink in the evolutionary history of the planet, since Leo Baekaland invented the first fully synthetic plastic, Bakelite, in New York in 1907. But those 113 years have seen man’s new best friend become the planet’s nightmare.

Dorset composer Karen Wimhurst worked with the Museum of Design in Plastics, based at Arts University Bournemouth, to research the story of plastic for her chamber opera, Synthetica, which was first seen at Poole’s Lighthouse arts centre’ in 2018 and at the 2020 Tete a Tete festival of new opera.

Now it has received its premiere in a digital version screened on YouTube, with amazing graphics to illustrate and amplify the complexity and paradoxes of this material which has literally infiltrated every aspect of life on earth.

With minimal forces – soprano Brittany Soriano, trumpeter Elaine Close and vinyl DJ Ole Rudd – to perform the beautiful, ethereal and often witty score, and a brilliant libretto which draws on everything from scientific facts to advertising slogans of the 1930s, 40s and 50s, and pop and rock music, Synthetica is a powerful fable for our times.

Covid-19 meant that this important work could not be taken on tour this year. Let’s hope when we emerge from lockdown that a tour can be rescheduled, and that our communities and the planet can benefit from some of the lessons we have learned about our disposable, greedy society and about what really matters for all of us.


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