British opera finds harmony in financial world

"Open Outcry" rehearsals.

A new opera has just premiered in London. "Open Outcry" is an opera with a difference. It has no plot, not much of a libretto, and unlike a traditional opera which can drag on for hours, this one lasts just 30 minutes.

The opera revolves around a curious idea: that the open outcry form of financial trading in which dealers bellow and shout at each other is inherently musical. It has a rhythm and a harmony which can be tapped and turned into a musical performance.

It’s the brainchild of a computer music specialist from Plymouth University named Alexis Kirke.

“I thought: What if you took an open outcry trading floor and instead of shouting they were singing, projecting what they wanted through the singing voice?” says Kirke.

Kirke took his idea to Barclays Bank and found a sympathetic audience. The head of behavioral and quantitative finance at the bank, Greg Davies, agreed to collaborate on the project, noting parallels between the raucousness of the market and the exuberance of opera.

“Music is about expressing emotion, it’s about expressing our feelings, our responses to the world," says Davies. “And this is precisely what an open outcry trader does. He has to make himself heard and noticed. He has to cry out above the others. And that’s not necessarily dissimilar from an opera soloist soaring above the chorus and the orchestra.”

The new opera involves a cellist and 12 singers -- all members of a London choral society called the Elysian Singers. Dressed in brightly colored jackets, they gesticulate and sing their trades, buying or selling three desirable commodities: wealth, protection and comfort.

This is not quite as symbolic as it sounds. The singers are interacting with a computer model programmed to rise and fall and move sideways like a real market. At the end of the performance, the singers’ trades are totted up and they are paid accordingly.

“So this is a real story," says Kirke. “A story of real passion, real frustration, real gains and real losses.”

With several hundred dollars at stake, the singers were quickly caught up in the mood of the market.

“It was quite exciting,” says soprano Jo Reynolds. “Quite confusing and pretty scary.”

Bass Paul Kiang was also daunted: “I spent much of the gig in a state of panic and terror.”

"Open Outcry" is offbeat, experimental, occasionally cacophonous and a little baffling. So why precisely did Barclays Bank get involved?

"Well, for Barclays," says Davies, “it’s about associating finance with something creative, something artistic, with something novel.”

Something less creative than the rigging of the LIBOR interest rate -- and less dramatic than the subprime crisis. After all the financial scandal and tumult of recent years, this odd little opera is at least a brave attempt to bring some harmony out of the discord.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.

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