Music Theatre Wales (MTW) has presented New Directions, three collaborations from artists new to opera. Led by MTW’s Artistic Associate Elayce Ismail and Director Michael McCarthy, the new commissions present “a bold vision staying true to the company origins, while responding to the need to create new opera for our times,” the Cardiff-based company said in a statement.
New Directions aims to question what opera is and what it should be by commissioning and working with artists who have previously been ignored or excluded from creating opera, MTW said. The three works have been created by Tumi Williams and Sita Thomas, Renell Shaw and Rachael Young, and Krystal S Lowe and Jasmin Kent Rodgman. They are available to watch for free on Music Theatre Wales’s website.
Writer, composer and performer Tumi Williams and multidisciplinary director and dramaturg Sita Thomas collaborated on The House of Jollof Opera, an exploration and expansion of the operatic form. The creative duo brought their own cultural heritages to the piece, while engaging with contemporary opera in Cardiff. It tells the story of budding chef Adeola who wants to use his speciality vegan Jollof to impress Asha, a tired and hard-working boss of a neighbourhood café.
Williams said: “This project gave me the freedom to work with opera, but in the way that I could work with it. I wanted to bridge the traditions of opera and bring my culture into that context. I felt challenged making this work with Sita because it represents me, and I wasn’t sure if it was something people wanted to see. Sita and I bounced off each other to make the piece and this creative process has pushed me; it was new and interesting to have a dialogue with an opera singer.”
Pride (A Lion’s Roar) narrates an experience that many people of colour have endured: of being told that you are ‘aggressive’ or ‘too loud’, and being forced to make yourself smaller to be accepted, turning your roar into a purr so that others don’t feel threatened. It was created by composer and music producer Renell Shaw and artist and writer Rachael Young, with visuals by Kyle Legall. Shaw also provides vocals for the piece; he is joined by soprano Gweneth Ann Rand and singer/songwriter Chantelle Nandi.
“I had never been to the opera before as it was always too expensive, but when I would see something online I would find the scale and visual language very inspiring,” Young commented. “So I had a sense of opera and I love the way the voice fills the space. With epic voices and epic scenes, I wanted to move opera to a different place, like a graphic novel. I was tackling a new genre and the pandemic opened doors on new things where I could be more experimental across forms. It was a great collaboration with Renell. From early on a theme emerged and we were able to share the development of lyrics and music together.”
Shaw added: “I’m excited about exploring new ways to fuse musical genres and express narrative. Opera vocalists are powerful and dynamic in a way that is specific to their genre; the idea of taking that sound and respectfully placing it in a world where it may not normally be heard opens up endless possibilities for me.”
The final piece in the triplet is Somehow. Writer and dancer Krystal S Lowe and composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman have created a work that draws on opera, lieder and dance, providing an exploration of intimacy and relationships between the music and movement, as well as performer and audience. Somehow aims to redefine the operatic experience in a way that embodies how we live today and our connections with one another.
Librettist Lowe said: “With Somehow I didn’t want to try to steer the audience to an understanding of the meaning, but to offer music, movement and voice, allowing them to connect with the character and to craft their own narrative. As a writer and dancer developing my audio description practice, I wanted to achieve an audio description that draws audiences into an intimate space that isn’t crowded but instead leaves room for reflection.
“The writing for this work was inspired by relationships in my own life, including my relationship with myself. The feeling of being deeply known and understood; connecting with a person or version of self. Elayce and Michael gave us the space, resources and time to do this work in a programme that is core to MTW’s vision for their company, and it feels essential, authentic and innovative.”
All three pieces are short – under 5 minutes – and are free to view. The first two are already available, with Somehow premiering on 22 October.
Speaking of the reasons behind the new commissions, Elayce Ismail, artistic associate, commented: “There are so many barriers to working in opera, and also to accessing it as an audience member, from the perception of what the artform is and who it is for, through to access to training. New Directions aims to chip away at some of these barriers and revitalise what opera can be, who makes it and who it’s made for.
“Opera is such a dynamic artform and I think it can absolutely resonate with contemporary audiences, but to do so it needs new artists and new ideas to invigorate, challenge and develop it. For New Directions we’ve brought together three brilliant pairs of collaborators, who each bring different creative practices to the mix, and who have been generous and inquisitive in our discussions about the potential of opera. It’s been wonderful seeing how each of our creators has embraced the challenge, and the added element of creating work remotely for digital audiences, to make three unique and compelling new operatic works.”
Co-writer and singer Asha Jane as Asha in Tumi Williams and Sita Thomas’s The House of Jollof Opera, commissioned by Music Theatre Wales for its New Directions project (Redbrck).