Blakeson - Writer

Cardiff-based film, theatre and gig reviews, cultural ramblings, whingeing, short films, etc.

Friday, June 03, 2016

"Make An Aria"

Back in November, I was forwarded an e-mail from Michael McCarthy, Artistic Director of Music Theatre Wales, seeking writers to take part in their latest Make An Aria project, exploring the topic of immigration. This was in connection with their up-coming production of “The Golden Dragon” – an opera about asylum-seekers in Germany.

I was aware of the company’s pioneering work in the area of contemporary opera, and of their most recent aria programme, focussing on World War 1. Knowing little about opera (although I did go and see “Porgy And Bess” at the Wales Millennium Centre a few years ago, and “Turandot” at the New Theatre several years earlier), and always keen to try new things, I leapt at the opportunity to learn more.

A few days later, I found myself in a room at the Royal Welsh College of Music And Drama, with a bunch of other writers, several students of composition along with composer John Hardy (their head of department), Michael McCarthy and Michael Rafferty of MTW, and representatives from the Welsh Refugee Council. We were given a brief introduction to the concept of the aria, as well as some actual facts and figures about the asylum system as it applies to Wales, before hearing the remarkable testimony of Mustafa, a former soldier who has been forced to leave Gambia.

There was then a clever “speed-dating” exercise, where writers and composers interacted briefly whilst discussing imagery, following which we were put into pairs and, basically, told to get on with creating an original aria.
"Speed-dating" at RWCMD (photo: Music Theatre Wales)

Within a week, I had presented a first draft of a one-page libretto entitled “In Limbo” to my lucky collaborator, Carlijn Metselaar. We had already agreed that our take on the issue of immigration should be broadly positive, and that the writing of political theorist Hannah Arendt might be a good starting-point; I found a quote of hers about a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany which I borrowed for the opening line. Our protagonist is a universal character, meditating on his statelessness; I tried to keep the text simple, direct and fluent.

Over the next few months, via e-mail communications and a handful of meetings and consultations (from which I took the useful note that it is hard to make the word “limbo” sound serious in an operatic context), our aria magically came into being.

The climax finally arrived on June 2nd.

I first heard the piece during the afternoon rehearsal, with singer Rodney Clarke accompanied by Ian Shaw on piano; frankly I was lost for words. Carlijn had sent me the score, but with my primary-school-level sight-reading skills, I could only glean a vague idea of the melody. Finally getting a sense of the way in which she brilliantly used shifting time-signatures to signal the changes in mood throughout the piece – a kind of journey from a dark place to an optimistic one – with my words given life by a powerful, dramatic voice, I was profoundly moved.

The public masterclass, later that evening, was a bit of a blur.

Each writer/composer pairing (the others were Pey Pey Oh & Daniel Soley; Eric Ngalle Charles & Joe Shrimpling; Wanda O’Connor & Andrew Wallace; and Jeanne Jones & Charlotte Eaton-Jones) was called up on stage to introduce their aria, which was then performed (the other singers being Llio Evans and Martha Jones), prior to Stuart MacRae (composer of MTW’s recent production “The Devil Inside”) briefly interrogating the creative team, and bringing his experienced ear to bear on the interaction between text, music and performance and ways in which this might be enhanced.

Stuart MacRae (photo: Music Theatre Wales)

The show ended with Zimbabwean performer Bevin Magama accompanying himself on the mbira as he told the story of The Rat and The Porcupine – itself, vaguely asylum-themed.

A beautiful experience – transcendent, even.

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