As part of our #ForArtists offering, we’re inviting past Festival artists to share their experiences, and tell you how their opera became a reality. In today’s blog, Dr Susannah Self reflects on her research into making opera more socially inclusive.
Recently I was in a zoom meeting with Bill Banks-Jones and the Tête à Tête artistic administrative team, Anna Gregg and Leo Doulton alongside other composer/creators of opera like myself. The focus of our discussion was how we can build audiences for the festival. In particular we were looking for effective ways to reach economic groups that find the cost of opera going prohibitive and how to meaningfully reach out to BAME and LGTB communities. As our discussion evolved, I realised that some of the points raised coincided with aspects of my recent research that I did for my practice-based PhD in composition at Royal Birmingham Conservatoire. There are no easy answers, however I am excited that Tête à Tête are rolling up their sleeves to address in particular the issue of social inclusivity. I have been lucky to contribute my work as a composer to Tête à Tête festivals on a number of occasions, the most recent being The Boy from Brazil which starred Johnny Guim eight years ago.
Composing The Boy from Brazil coincided with and may have even contributed to my decision to shift my focus from a full-time opera singer who composed opera in her free time to a full-time composer. In particular I wanted to discover alternative paradigms for opera creation such as featuring female protagonists who passed the Bechdel test as established by Alison Bechdel (1986). To comply, two women must at some point talk about something other than a man. My career as singer even in modern operas had been constricted by playing roles that conformed to stereotypes. Catherine Clément suggests that in opera female roles are largely presented as ‘a decorative object’ and that ‘women perpetually sing their eternal undoing.’ Put less poetically, Christopher Small says ‘it is rare on the opera stage to meet a heroine who is permitted to be strong and independent, which means not depending on male support, and get away with it’. To counter-balance this I invited Maureen Brathwaite to sing the lead role of Rosa Parks in my research opera Quilt Song.
My work as a composer has become dedicated to developing innovative routes of creating, composing and producing new opera. I want to disrupt the established conventions of operas composed since WW2 and develop alternative approaches that in turn stimulate increased engagement with a broader range of performers and audiences. To achieve this, I set out to engage with processes which in particular take their inspiration from developments in visual art and modern dance. In addition, I want to promote social inclusiveness that moves beyond hierarchies. I was fortunate to receive a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of a scholarship that provided me with a living wage for three years. This enabled me to take risks and think outside the box.
In Birmingham over a two-year period, I allowed my creative process to be influenced by working with 3 community groups: 1) students from the Birmingham Ormiston Academy, a performance academy with access to children from economically deprived backgrounds, 2) Pastures New a quilting group and 3) The Universal Choir formed of enthusiastic amateur singers.
My aim was to compose a full-length opera which involved participation of these groups alongside a professional instrumental ensemble and solo singers. Quilt Song was designed as a mainstage evening event at The Old Rep Theatre, Birmingham in 2018. Through workshops, I identified a range of compositional approaches that responded to these communities who had never been to an opera. I kept the authenticity of my compositional voice through a process that was inspired by using the methods of quilting as a metaphor to allow for musical eclecticism interfaced with multi-narratives, soundscapes, videos, three-dimensional installations and social inclusivity.
The literary foundations of Quilt Song were laid by sourcing material from the play Abraham Lincoln written by John Drinkwater and premièred the Old Rep Theatre Birmingham in 1918. The play deals with Lincoln’s struggles with going to war with the South and his assassination. I then extended the theme of Lincoln’s fight for justice of human rights to the current day by including Rosa Park’s stand against segregation and MP Jo Cox’s promotion of inclusivity in society. It was extremely important to my community groups that I referred to these more contemporary stories such as Rosa’s refusal to move on the bus in 1955 and the tragic circumstances of the attack on Jo Cox in 2016 which had just occurred when I started the project. This was because they felt these narratives were relevant to them today. In the opera, Rosa and Jo’s situations are contextualised by the underlying themes in Abraham Lincoln whose implications go on to be explored via a fantastical sequence in Act II when the whole cast die in a catastrophic world destruction event. As a result, they cross the river Styx, guided by Blake (the driver who asks Rosa to move on the bus) who has become The Boatman. Unexpectedly, on the other side there is a street party that simultaneously embraces all time, past, present and future. Embodied in this moment is the transformation of the entire cast as an act of redemption, facilitated by an awareness of the benefits of embracing inclusivity.
Definitive conclusions to an audience’s subjective responses to performances are empirically difficult to quantify, however, there was an overwhelmingly positive reaction to Quilt Song which was encouraging. But overall the real game changer for this production was my decision to search for a way to facilitate free entry to performances. This shift allowed target audience of ‘people who don’t go to opera’ to fill the 350 theatre for both performances. Someone brought a baby and crisp packets being opened added to the excitement!
The idea to make tickets free occurred to me after I interviewed casual attendees in a shopping mall at performances of my 5-minute scena Freedom Bridge commissioned by Birmingham Opera Company in 2017. I presented one question:
‘How much do you think is reasonable to pay for a ticket to new opera?”
‘The reason I was drawn to a production of Dido and Aeneas by Birmingham Opera Company was partly because the tickets were £5. Opera is often prohibitive.’ –
Understandably, then, a conundrum arose as to how I could independently raise the £25,000.00 budget needed to stage Quilt Song. Because of my fully funded research, I was not entitled to apply for public funding. Therefore, searching for other ways to raise fund led to inventive thinking which will be useful for future work. This is because public funding is getting ever harder to win. Also, ticket pricing structures for new opera are rarely able to cover the full budget of putting them on so it is empowering to find alternative models. I achieved funding in the following 4 ways:
1. Generating £9,000.00 in income in the form of fees from training the Universal Choir which paid for the professional singers and instrumentalists fees.
2. Bartering: I gave two years of training to Birmingham Ormiston Academy’s students and gained free use of The Old Rep Theatre for the production week worth £5,000.00.
3. Voluntary donations of time and resources: volunteers for stage management, lighting, free rehearsal space and home stays worth circa £6,000.00.
4. £5,000.00 raised by sale of my paintings though selfmademusic’s online gallery.
To conclude, I discovered that achieving social mobility of access to a new opera can be well served by delivering free performances. The Tate Modern provides a successful example of opening up to new social groups because of free entry. Applying this approach was also effective because since I don’t live in Birmingham I only had a handful of friends to ask to performances. Because of the free ticketing it was exciting to see real people from diverse backgrounds flow into the 350-seat theatre and experience a first taste of opera that was specifically created for them. The outcome was that I discovered that money can often be more efficiently generated through providing interactive training rather than focussing on offering low priced tickets which may still dissuade eclectic and socially expanded audience attendance. Finally, I learnt the value of engaging with selling physical product to raise funds. In my case I am lucky that I also paint. Raising money through sales is a great deal more fun and often more effective than filling in endless time-consuming funding applications which are hotly competed for.
Finally, putting on Quilt Song was a superhuman effort made on behalf of my research with the support of Michael Christie, Selfmademusic’s artistic administrator so I am not suggesting that this is the only way! However, it is clear that the free access to new opera which has been facilitated by Tête à Tête’s open air work at Kings Place, Birmingham Opera Company and my own company Selfmade Music, has allowed people who would not normally come to the opera to flow in. This brings us back to the conversation and provocations that we are now having as opera creators.
Linkedin: Dr Self
Youtube: Dr Susannah Self