To dislike The Blue Woman — script by playwright Laura Lomas, composed by Laura Bowler and directed by Katie Mitchell — which premiered at Royal Opera House’s Linbury Theatre on Wednesday, risks invoking the wrath of the Engender Gods.

Engender is The Royal Opera’s initiative “to deliver transformational change in gender representation and drive gender equality in all areas of the opera sector, both on stage and behind the scenes”.

I disliked. I invoke. No small risk, as Engender has since 2019 established an international network of around 500 women and non-binary people, on and off stage, located “across the world”. The Blue Woman is the core of this year’s annual Engender Festival. Probably, they will be on my case.

The opera deals with an important subject, psychological fracturing in the aftermath of a rape. Four soloist singers perform alongside four cellists staged across a deep blue, unadorned set, filling the bottom half of the stage.

Split horizontally, the top half is a projected film of a tormented rape victim, whose actions are often unrelated to the words of the seated, singing soloists below. Presumably, the intention is to create a narrative between the filmic trauma above and the static musical commentary.

It doesn’t really work. Sometimes, while the singers narrate dawn, the film is clearly in night. Careless.

The woman victim in the film is silent, contorts on the floor of a derelict tower block flat, gazes close-up poignantly over a London landscape, or walks the city’s streets aimlessly, day and night. Clapham Junction features a lot. She is alone.

The singers and cellists barely move throughout the performance. No interaction either. Their voices incant often disordered thoughts, which pass for a running commentary on the action unfolding above their heads.

The singers do not sing. Nor do the cellists play their instruments. Voices are irritatingly overwhelmed by infernal electronic loop music and cellos are banged, scratched with wire, or rubbed with cloths. Bowing is occasional and to no particular end. Unless, that is, you are from the atonal shriek fan club.

Frankly, there is no music. This is a cacophony of brittle, disturbing noise. It succeeds in shocking the senses — which may be Bowler’s point — but it makes the work one-dimensional, missing the opportunity to introduce nuance or exploit the singers’ undoubted vocal talents, on display for microseconds only.

The work is delivered in a Prelude and eight sections. Prelude is an assertion. “Here I am”. “Still here”. In a body, “made small by you”, as the rapist is accused.

Room is a reflection on the woman who was. Before the rape. “The shape of the woman, who used to be here”. A running memory of the violation, taste, colour, smell of metal, and a sense of drowning, even while performing mundane tasks, like buying coffee, is invoked.  

Train. “A woman stands on a train platform”. Reflected in the glass windows of a moving train, “I can see the shape of the person who used to be there”.

City takes on a different, fragmented structure. A turn up of the emotional dial. The four singers exchange random phrases, “She’s looking for someone”, “My waking vision”, ‘Hard boned”, “I can almost taste it”.

And concludes with the shattering line, sung by Woman 1 and 3: “I feel the entire centre break, a rip in the seam, the death of God, and the violence of the world, breaking over, the body of a small girl”.


Park places the narrators as observers of a former, normal life, “Where she was gold in the sunlight”, “Here where she scraped her knee”. I ached for a change in sound world reflecting the poignancy of these recollections. Came there none from the relentless assault on the cellos. No melodic line from the fixed-staring four singers.

Police Station is a confrontation between the victim and uncomprehending authority:

“A woman stares at me from behind the glass and I can tell by the

way she looks that she knows me already


the shape of these shoulders

the angle of this stare

She’s seen it

in the faces of a thousand women

all over this city

Blue Women”

This chapter is a plea to “Take me to the woman I remember”. But, of course, thoughtless, uncomprehending Plod can’t help with that. Too many forms to fill. The sharp exchanges in the libretto read more compellingly than they sounded in performance. Another missed opportunity.

Street sees the victim recognising herself “in the blacked-out window of a moving car, just a snatch, of something, some colour, but it’s you, and I know it’s you, your hair, your eyes.”

The gulf between the victim and the woman is deepened by the continued use of the third person, “And she knows the reflection in the glass”.

The rape, never graphically described, is made more sinister by occasional flashback references, “A room”, “Taste of metal”, “Fingers in my mouth”, scattered through the narrative. Our minds involuntarily infill the harrowing detail.

Night finds our victim fighting back, “I drink ‘til I can’t speak”, “I smoke ‘til I’m sick”, “I dance in my bare feet ‘til they’re black and they’re blue”. She walks through the city, body on fire and stands there “in the fury and I watch it burn.”

She has laid the ghost of the rape victim to rest. At least, that’s my take on this raging attempt at resolution, recovering her former self.

Resolution, of a sort, comes with Morning.

“I look at the sky,

And as I walk, I notice


Opera is, as it always has been, a medium perfectly suited to illuminate the social issues of the day. The Blue Woman left me stunned because while the cold statistic, that one in five women have been raped or sexually assaulted (Rape Crisis England and Wales) was familiar, I had only some awareness of the devastating impact on victims.

Perhaps Bowler, Lomas and Mitchell would respond, “Mission accomplished”. Maybe not enjoying the show is the whole point. But I can’t help feeling that poor justice was done to the creators’ cause by presenting a performed work that was less interesting than the read libretto.

This opera turned out to be significantly less than the sum of its parts.

Buy tickets for the Blue Woman by Laura Bowler and Laura Lomas, directed by Katie Mithcell at Linbury theatre 7-11 July 2022.