Reflections on new ways forward for opera: Spring 2018
I recently attended one of the youngest and most exciting new opera festivals in Europe – Opera Forward Festival, created by Pierre Audi just three years ago and run from De Nationale Opera in Amsterdam, the company he has been running for the last 30 years. OFF is turning into a dynamic and provocative event and it certainly got me thinking…
During the short time I was there, I was fortunate enough to see We Shall Not Be Moved by composer and bandleader Daniel Bernard Roumain (b. 1970) in collaboration with spoken-word poet, performer and playwright Marc Bamuthi Joseph (b.1975) and director, choreographer, dramaturg and famed dancer Bill T. Jones. Here was a new opera that specifically set out to tell a story that conveyed the experiences and hopes of so many people of colour living in the USA right now.
Based on an appalling and tragic event from Philadelphia’s recent past that has deep significance for the city’s black community, the team created a new story that built on those powerful foundations. We Shall Not Be Moved isn’t simply a protest about the wrongs done, as it could easily have been. In fact, the opera took on a stronger and uplifting approach, suggesting there is another way to think and a different world to imagine that could, one day, start to emerge. It became subtle and emotionally charged, and played to opera’s inherent strengths.
Opera Philadelphia’s website introduces the work as
“a timely exploration of past and present struggles which suggests an alternate future through the eyes of its young protagonists”and the OFF website describes it as
“an indictment against the structural inequality encountered by the black community in Philadelphia and other places”.This work sets out to talk to us – the audience.
We Shall Not Be Moved was a new opera created by black artists that explores contemporary life and ideas through the medium of opera, using musical and dramatic ideas and material that is true to those artists. The work is not made to look or sound like “classical opera”, but one that combines unconventional music (unconventional for the opera stage) and storytelling delivered in operatic form. Then why? Why not make it as a musical? Quite simply, opera is the best medium for this drama, where the depth of feeling and desire can be explored, allowing the music to speak through the drama, and vice-versa.
As with most musicals, We Shall Not Be Moved included plenty of spoken text, but in this case the text was not delivered in a conventional theatrical manner. Interestingly, it was spoken by a character called “Un/Sung”, performed by a spoken word-performer – closer to poetry performance and rap than conventional dialogue. The result was that the spoken text never loses the intensity and musicality on which opera depends.
Described as “urgent and topical, and presenting a smooth crossover between spoken word, contemporary dance, video projections, classical music, jazz and R&B”, We Shall Not Be Moved throws a challenge to each and every one of us. If opera is meant to be the form in which all the arts combine, then surely this is what should be presented in our opera houses, with a broader range of musical and dramatic material. However, what is even more significant is that this is an opera that speaks to a much broader audience than a contemporary opera festival might at first seem to attract.
We Shall Not Be Moved drew a large audience for the two nights it played in Amsterdam, and the early indication was that around 30% of the audience was new to the opera company. It provoked much debate about who the audience were, who it could or should have been for, and whether or not this was a way forward for opera. I’m excited by the idea that opera can change itself so that more people from many different backgrounds will begin to discover the unique power of this astonishing art form. If this happens then who knows where it might go, and what new voices (and by that I mean composers and writers as well as singers) will start to emerge.
Alongside We Shall Not Be Moved and the extensive programme of professional performance and debate presented by the festival, OFF also cultivated and presented six staged works created and performed by students and school-children and performed in various informal spaces around the opera house. The level of achievement was astonishing - musically, dramatically and visually. Each of the six groups included a large chorus, and the unleashing of such creativity and empowerment amongst so many young people by literally taking over the opera house, was truly uplifting.
I left the festival revitalised and excited by the prospect that opera has a dynamic and relevant future, but one that will only happen if we enable a greater variety of artists to claim it for themselves.