Devising an opera chorus

Anna Appleby writes about her experience as our Manchester Composer in Residence:

Since July 2016, I have been working with the Booth Centre and Explore groups in Manchester to create and stage an opera chorus inspired by Britten’s Canticles for Streetwise Opera’s 15th anniversary. Our canticle was Edith Sitwell’s ‘Still Falls the Rain’, so we are performing a scene based around conflict and the image of falling: the statue of a dictator in a crowded town square is about to topple, what will this mean for the future?

The first part of the process of writing an opera chorus was to meet with the performers and explore the scenario, then together generate a libretto. We did this through lyric-writing workshops. I set a selection of these powerful lyrics to music, with guidance from Streetwise staff Mark Oldfield and Matt Peacock, and the result is a piece called ‘Kingdoms Come and Kingdoms Go’, based on the idea of political change, hope and the power of democracy. It involves multiple voices – some characters want the statue to fall, while others are anxious about the future, but all unite at the end to agree that it may be possible to build something positive together.

The Manchester groups are amazing for their passion, ambition and commitment while simultaneously being fun and welcoming. I was honoured to join them onstage at the Bridgewater Hall for a lunchtime concert in July 2016, and I have loved joining in workshops and rehearsals, and especially seeing the progress of our piece musically and dramatically.

When I decided to become a composer, I was determined not to end up in a reclusive spiral of obsessive typesetting, coffee-chugging and self-doubt. As an extroverted chatterbox I am fortunate to be immersed in lots of collaborative projects that involve multiple creative voices. Streetwise Opera is a great example of this – it has an inclusive ethos, is always open to trying new things, respects performers’ artistic opinions, and combats isolation and disempowerment through music-making.

It’s exciting that performance of our opera chorus is fast approaching at the Manchester Opera Hour on 11 April. I want to thank Streetwise Opera for the experience it’s given me so far. I’ve had advice, encouragement and constructive feedback from the team in London. I’ve also had the opportunity to receive mentorship from composers Jonathan Dove and Orlando Gough. I’ve learned a huge amount from working with the team in Manchester (the leaders, support workers and of course the performers). Needless to say, I’ve also had a lot of fun!

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Our 15th anniversary season Composers in Residence are supported by PRS for Music Foundation. Photo: Ruth Appleby