Young British conductor Oliver Zeffman has commissioned the world’s first opera specifically written and performed for our current socially distanced situation.
Eight Songs From Isolation has been written by eight leading composers for streaming, rather than live performance, and during a time when the performers were unable to meet in person. It is available to watch exclusively on Apple Music.
Eight texts on isolation were chosen by the composers, each drawing on what they had experienced during the last five months. Shot entirely on iPhone, the resulting opera was directed by Billy Boyd Cape. The multidisciplinary film director weaves the eight different songs into a unified viewing experience that takes the audience on a journey through evolving representations of isolation.
Zeffman conducts the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and a cast of leading opera singers including mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, countertenor Iestyn Davies, soprano Sophie Bevan and two recent winners of the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.
“Crises have often been the catalyst for artists to develop not only new work, but also new ways of working,” the conductor commented. “The current pandemic gripping the world has made impossible the two fundamental requirements of most artforms: the interaction of artists with each other, and between artists and audiences.
“Rather than trying to repurpose something written in another context, I felt it artistically imperative to commission something that is very much of and for our current situation that speaks to the shared experience we are all going through. Music is the great unifier and I wish to thank everyone who came together with such enthusiasm and commitment to create a new opera that we hope will resonate with audiences and bring people together around the world.”
The conductor was determined to engage composers and singers from around the world to highlight the connection between people, in spite of physical isolation during the global pandemic. Fifty people worked on creating Eight Songs from Isolation, with those participating coming from across North America, Europe, Africa and Asia.
The opera consists of:
• Thomas Adès: Gyökér by Miklós Radnóti, sung in Hungarian by Katalin Károlyi with Ricardo Gallardo (marimba);
• Nico Muhly: New-Made Tongue by Thomas Traherne, sung in English by Iestyn Davies;
• Helen Grime: Prayer by Carol Ann Duffy, sung in English by Sarah Connolly;
• Huw Watkins: ‘How’ by Philip Larkin, sung in English by Toby Spence;
• Du Yun: Every Grass A Spring, with her own text co-authored by Yang Nan, sung in Mandarin by Shenyang with Wu Man (Pipa) and Wu Wei (Sheng);
• Freya Waley-Cohen: Spell for Reality by Rebecca Tamás, sung in English by Julia Bullock;
• Ilya Demutsky: I Guess the Universe is to Blame, words of Alexey Barishnikov as he held up a Russian bank at the height of lockdown, sung in Russian by Andrei Kymach;
• Julian Anderson: Le 3 mai, a letter he received during lockdown from composer Ahmed Essyad, sung in French by Sophie Bevan.
Zeffman conducted the orchestra in a studio with the composers and singers virtually ‘in the room’ to ensure that the orchestral accompaniment was a collaborative process. The singers were then filmed in or near their own homes, recording to these backing tracks using iPhone 11 Pro.
Toby Spence, Katalin Károlyi, Sarah Connolly and Andrei Kymach (top left to bottom right) in stills from Eight Songs From Isolation.