CRITICAL MASS

With The Shout, Streetwise Opera

Directed by Emma Bernard

Designed by Naomi Wilkinson

Lighting Anna Watson

 

Critical Mass was my first experience of working with Streetwise Opera. It was performed by thirty homeless people and The Shout.

 

Fifty politicians gather together for a summit meeting to discuss - well, to discuss everything – climate change, terrorism, ID cards, transport, energy sources, food, health, cities, nuclear deterrents, teenagers, cloning…… - the future of the world.

An extremely formal occasion. Speeches are made, the kind of speeches that pretend to a moral standpoint, but are actually based on nothing but the desire to stay in power. Important decisions are made. Allegiances are sworn. Votes are taken.

 

Which is all very well except that……..

 

There is a subversive element to the meeting, a human, informal, anarchic, nostalgic, ungovernable element. The delegates keep breaking out into songs, specifically folk songs – songs of protest, love songs, nursery rhymes, lullabies, songs about going to war, songs about coming back from war, songs about hardship, celebratory songs……..

 

A speech about trading in carbon emissions is interrupted by a song about the arrival of spring.

Two people on opposite sides of the chamber sing a love song to one another, while the rest of the delegates quietly write notes.

A power point presentation turns into a karaoke song.

Some of the delegates start to sing the Horst Wessel Song – the others try to stop them; some sing the Internationale, some When Johnny Comes Marching Home, some try to restrain them physically. Chaos.

A speech about the evils of racism. The tea lady arrives. She is black. She sings.

The delegates fall asleep, singing a lullaby to themselves.

 

Always a tension between the abstract, detached, privileged speech-making on the one hand, and the concrete, emotional, egalitarian singing on the other.

And a tension between a vision of the future and a yearning for the past.

 

The meeting is interrupted by a protest. The protesters are ejected, with difficulty. Someone has an epileptic fit. Someone’s lover turns up in a rage……

 

The piece ends with the delegates quietly singing the German folk song Alles ist verganglich – everything is transitory.

 

Score available on request

FLAM

Performed by Rebecca Askew and Melanie Pappenheim

Directed by Emma Bernard

 

A higgledy-piggledy, hugger-mugger hodge-podge of flip-flop flim-flammery: a tornado of hum-drum tittle-tattle, flashes of vocal ping-pong, some topsy-turvy tit-for-tat, plenty of sing-song, a teeny-weeny bit of argy-bargy, not to mention the occasional ding-dong, interspersed with some harum-scarum chit-chat about hanky-panky and rumpy-pumpy. Some of it frankly mumbo-jumbo. But zero tolerance of namby-pamby rugger-buggers and silly-billy whipper-snappers, very little razzle-dazzle, and no shilly-shallying. At times, willy-nilly, pell-mell into helter-skelter roly-poly hocus-pocus. It almost gives you the heeby-jeebies. Altogether, pretty arty-farty (not for the riff-raff), but far from airy-fairy. Okey-cokey! A must for culture-vultures.

 

 

Two women sit at a table in a public space – a foyer, a café, a shop…. They start to sing to each other.

The piece is very playful; it's almost as if the women are involved in a game, but it's not entirely clear what the rules are. The singing and the action suggest a subtly shifting relationship, but the relationship is very mysterious - at times it's as if they're lovers, at times as if one is having a baby and the other is a midwife, at times as if one is a therapist and the other her patient, at times as if one is having an affair with the other one's partner....but these possibilities are very nebulous, because actually they're just two women singing together.

 

Score available on request

 

THE FINNISH PRISONER

Libretto by Stephen Plaice

Directed by Susannah Waters

Designed by Num Stibbe

with Marcia Bellamy, Joanna Songi

 

An opera, for soloists, a small professional chorus, a children’s chorus, a community chorus and small band

 

In 1854, shortly after declaring war on Russia, the British and French allies staged a pre-emptive strike (not such a new idea then) on the Baltic fortress of Bomarsund. Six hundred prisoners were taken as political trophies. The fortress had been garrisoned not with Russian regulars but with Finnish conscripts, Finland then being a sub-state within the Russian empire. Half the captives were shipped back to Britain to see out the war in Lewes. The officers were billeted in town houses and spent their time waltzing around the drawing rooms of the bourgeoisie; the ordinary soldiers found themselves banged up in the old naval prison, newly requisitioned as a prisoner-of-war camp. The Finns were a huge success in Lewes. Locals and tourists visited the prison, and the Finns made children's toys for visitors to buy. The parting at the end of the war is said to have been genuinely sorrowful and entailed a formal civic farewell.

 

In the opera, a love affair between one of the Finnish prisoners and a local woman is interwoven with a modern love affair. The past and the present intertwine. The performances were staged in a disused warehouse in the Phoenix Quarter of Lewes, a few yards from the site of the old naval prison.

 

The Finnish prisoners were played by members of the chorus of Finnish National Opera. They too were a huge success in Lewes. When the community chorus first heard the Finns, they burst into spontaneous applause. It's an incredibly exciting sound - simple, open-throated singing, with no operatic mannerisms. I wrote some quite complex dynamics into their part, but basically they just sung very loudly. Glorious.

 

Score available on request

 

ONE TWO

Harriet (violin) and Alice (cello) Murray, Kate and Helen Ashby (voices), Nina and Clara Kanter (voices), Nicola (cello) and Lauren (violin) Coker Gordon, Jonathan and Richard Rushworth (voices), Caitlin and Angharad Pether (voices, percussion)

Directed by Emma Bernard

 

One Two was an idea of Gavin Henderson’s. He noticed that Dartington Summer School had hosted a surprisingly large number of identical twins. Why not invite them to make a piece together? I jumped at the idea.

 

We assembled a gl orious group of twins – professionals, amateurs, children, and made a music theatre piece investigating identity, competitiveness, secret languages, telepathic communication, incompleteness, loss. Or rather, we intended to. What we actually made was an advert for twindom – playful, affectionate.

 

The music was based on ideas of copying and similarity, canon and fugue, hocketting, variation (for example, slightly, or perhaps radically different arrangements of the same tune). The twins sometimes supported, sometimes undermined each other. Nicola and Lauren played a single cello - beautiful. Harriet gave unhelpful advice while Alice tried to play. Jonathan and Richard read newspapers in perfect synchrony. Nina and Clara told their versions of the same story simultaneously (a wild party at their parents home that went horribly wrong) - their versions interweaved, sychronised, collided - very Louis Andreissen.

 

Emma and I are always on the lookout for opportunities to expand this idea (an identical twin convention!).

 

SWARM

For marauding chorus

Directed by Emma Bernard

 

Hajj in Mecca; protest on the streets of Cairo; Manchester United versus Arsenal; the funeral of Princess Diana; the Easter Procession in Valencia, Spain; the carnival in Rio; Newcastle’s Big Market on a Friday night…….

 

Swarm is about the behaviour of crowds – the wisdom of crowds, the madness of crowds.

 

A gang of singers maraud through a public space, walking, marching, jostling, running, swarming - sometimes benevolent, sometimes angry, sometimes inspired, sometimes spellbound. They sing, chant, whisper, shout, laugh, cry, jeer.

 

The mood changes, sometimes gradually, sometimes suddenly, unpredictably. Excitement moves into exhilaration, exhilaration into frustration, frustration into despair, despair into prayer. Chaos and anarchy are always a possibility, but so are quiet and concerted effort.

 

All this is expressed vocally, sometimes in strange noise-making, sometimes in uplifting tunes, sometimes in chorales. The music makes reference to Russian Orthodox chant, Balinese monkey chant, samba band drumming, Nazi hymns, Tibetan chant, football crowd songs, protest songs. A musical idea starts from one singer, spreads through the crowd, dies out. Another idea starts, spreads, possesses the crowd. The sound grows, becomes saturated, and erupts….. Leaders, armed with megaphones, encourage, cajole, bully, insult. The crowd reacts, or over-reacts, or takes no notice.

 

The audience accompanies the singers on their journey, sometimes spectating, sometimes jumping out of the way, sometimes implicated in the action.

 

Score available on request