I love the multitude of music that my life leads me to. So in total contrast to my normal jazz, and folky music, earlier this week as part of my work through Surrey Arts I sang through a newly commissioned opera.
Now I have to say I’m not normally an opera person. I’ve played in orchestras accompanying opera in the past and in my youth was involved in some choral work but I’ve never actually sung in a real life opera before. I am not ashamed to admit I do have a bit of a soft spot for some famous classical opera and I’m not one to miss an opportunity to see some Mozart or Verdi if it comes up. Britten’s Peter Grimes has to be one of my all time favourite pieces of classical music.
So I was very keen when invited to spend the afternoon away from the office for a sing through of the freshly composed piece. This work has been commissioned by Surrey Music Hub for the festivities surrounding the 800th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta. (Which happened at Runnymede, Surrey in case you don’t you know!)
The opera is a fantastically ambitious project that promises to involve around 1000 young people both singing and dancing, for a performance at the Royal Albert Hall this summer. The music was composed with Surrey’s young people in workshops in schools and has been composed by Hannah Conway with lyrics by Richard Stilgoe.
So what is it like singing through an opera: Well we did have professional help present in the room, with the directors taking on lead parts, and many in our group were music educators and singers, so we really weren’t starting from scratch. That being said though about half of us weren’t really singers, and I certainly have no recent experience of sight singing multipart choral music. However once we got going the music all started coming together and we all joined in, taking parts as was needed, and started making quite a glorious sound. It was really interesting for me trying to follow a part of written music and fumbling to find the harmonies. All the singing I have been doing recently has been worked out aurally and often I find myself sliding around vocally trying to find correct harmonies by ear. Having the notation was different but did make things easy. I guess I have enough musical training to be able to see the pitches and intervals from the score, although several times I was listening around the group searching for other voices doing my part to give me confidence in what I was doing.
The title of the Opera is The Freedom Game, and it is themed around a child and his family playing a game with a Mephistoheles type ‘dictator’ figure to win back freedoms for the world, journeying through history and discovering rights that have been enshrined in law through the ages. The format really works, and has been clearly well thought through with roles emerging for the massed choirs and more specialised experienced singers and their professional help.
Musically I think the opera is really clever. It builds up from some quite challenging atonal and polyrhythmic ideas, but set in a way that make singing actually quite easy. (super important for the children who will be singing the work). However interweaved into the complex music are themes reminiscent of famous english folk songs and other world music, making the content actually very approachable and easy to appreciate. The music worked cleverly from dissonance and complexity to clear vocal diatonic harmonies musically showing the direction of the theme.
I’m really excited to be involved in the production of this massive project and really looking forward to seeing the final results. I know when I performed as a child at the Royal Albert Hall it was a fantastic experience and I am sure it will be the same for the young performers who are involved in this production.
So what next?
Well I will certainly be involved more in this production so will be reporting back here soon on that, but this has left me feeling motivated… Perhaps it is time to join a choir?