Guest Blog: Performance As Potential In Robe

Friday, 12th February 2021

To celebrate the launch of ROBE today, we’re hosting a special series of guest blogs from people involved in creating this piece, from its premiere at Tête à Tête to the new recording. In the final blog, Soprano Kelly Poukens writes about her experience in ROBE.


To introduce the post, here are three of curator and ROBE director Gemma A. Williams’ featured favourites from 2015.



Soprano Kelly Poukens


I will never forget the audition call-out I saw on the internet two years ago. I was sitting in front of my PC, wearing jogging pants because I had just arrived back in Belgium. I had some days off after a rehearsal period in the Netherlands for Trouble in Tahiti, directed by Ted Huffman with the Dutch Nationale Opera. The next day I had to travel to Germany for a lied recital. 


I was just looking up the address of the concert venue when I saw the advert from UU studios: “We are looking for a soprano who can sing contemporary music”. It was a little rough and unclear but on the other hand I immediately thought: This is for me. It provoked such a strong inner feeling that I forgot the German address and I applied straight away, starting my email with “Hello, I am Kelly from Belgium.”  


I auditioned with Sequenza III by L. Berio, a movie recording I did a couple weeks before. A few days later I received a mail back from Alastair White himself. I was the lucky one, they had chosen me for the role of “Designer” in their first contemporary opera WEAR. A month later I stood in the middle of London. It wasn’t my first time in the UK but I remember myself sitting in an (expensive!) black cab with the address in my hands, ready to meet the WEAR team. This time, “Hello, I am Kelly from Belgium” was my opening sentence to the cast and creating team. 


After the success of WEAR and the award nomination, as well as the amazing time we had at Tête a Tête, I was asked back for the role of Storyteller in ROBE. And I was glad because after working with this company my view of art changed completely. Alastair’s music in ROBE is intense and really complex. The storyline (for a non-native english speaker) was not so easy going in the beginning. Creating these experimental opera performances with Alastair White and Gemma A. Williams taught me not to “think out of the box” but to think of “what if there is no box at all?” 


As a performer, you have to push yourself to the ultimate limits of yourself to sing and perform an opera as WEAR and now ROBE. This intense process of practising and rehearsing made me feel that I had a direct connection with all my lovely colleagues in this production. Backstage, on stage, and later in the recording studio. I had a lot of life conversations with Alastair about life and the complexity of life. All of that is in his operas. When ROBE was nominated for an Award as well, I thought, “Yes! This is really working”. I felt so proud of the whole team because I knew how much effort everyone has put into the production. 


Gemma, coming from the fashion world, is still inspiring me with her way of viewing. In Belgium we have some really strong, famous fashion designers. We call them the “Antwerp Six” it refers to a group of fashion designers who graduated from Antwerp‘s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the 19802; my favourite is Dries van Noten. I have a deep respect for a lot of fashion designers and their collections. I had the feeling I understood Gemma from the first moment we met. Fashion is a form of art and how interesting is it to think of combining it with other artforms? 


The interesting thing about these fashion-operas is that the fashion isn’t just a costume for just an opera. No, the fashion designers are a real inspiration. Gemma is looking for the right designer and the right piece for us to wear linked with the role in the piece and the layers of the story. In this way the audience for our opera’s is a mix between fashion lovers going to all fashion shows around the world and a group of people who are open to new experimental performances. I love these moments when people from both worlds connect and chat after our performances.


Every time I am performing Alastair’s work, wearing a piece from a high fashion designer chosen by Gemma, I have the feeling my voice has an extra “texture.” In WEAR I was dressed in a cape by Derek Lawlor. For ROBE Gemma decided to work with a number of designers and I wore a taffeta coat dress by Tommy Zhong. Via the dress, I found the right texture in my voice for my role as the Storyteller. I returned for just two days to record this impressive opera. Again, I was wearing some jogging pants but the feeling of me wearing that dress was still in my voice. 


What’s important in this contemporary experimental scene is trust in each other. From the first moment I said “I am Kelly from Belgium” I knew that this team will be friends for life. I have such wonderful memories in my heart of ROBE and the prestigious Tête a Tête festival. I worked closely with the dancers too and on the night they gave me great energy; I really love them all. 


When I am back in London I invite all my lovely colleagues for a typical English tea (someone has to remind me still if I have to pour the milk or the tea first). Alastair and Gemma have become really close friends. During this pandemic I worked with Alastair on a virtual contemporary opera (made via zoom): A Boat in An Endless Blue sea. It was close to my heart as it described the pandemic looking from the eyes of children. 


While I am looking forward to the CD release of ROBE I am blessed to work on WOAD, another fashion opera for Soprano and Saxophone telling seven scenes of the story of Tam-Lin. Together with the amazing Belgian Saxophone player Suzy Vanderheiden we are we finding our way again through the complex scores of Alastair. Trust in each other is very important in the process here too. I am feeling so blessed to create this piece with Suzy and made a first recording and staging in Belgium. It’s the first time Alastair, Gemma and I aren’t in the same country during the creation process but, thank God, we have the technology so I have the feeling that we are making this all together.


When you receive an Alastair-score for the first time, you think “Holy shit, what is this?!” (Sorry Alastair). As a composer he is confronting his performers with some unsingable or unplayable lines or very complex rhythms. You have to open something in yourself to solve these “problems” and remind yourself that, “there is no box at all”. UU studios gives you immense freedom to alter the piece to the best option for you. Therefore ROBE and also the other pieces are all quite personal and individual to me. 


The title of the first piece of WOAD is “Everything is always possible”. It’s a good summary of the working process of UU Studios. I have to stop writing and start rehearsing this piece now. While I am putting my jogging pants back on, I say “Everything is always possible” and am thinking it can be a quote for life. This was Kelly, from Belgium. 


ROBE comes out on Friday 12th February 2021.