Written by Sophie Wyatt
Music Theatre Wales exists to breathe new life into opera and music theatre as contemporary forms of artistic expression. Based in Wales, we are changing the way opera is made and perceived, by addressing who makes it, by reaching out to new and more diverse audiences, and by creating new work that responds to and reflects society: Giving opera a new voice and new ownership; celebrating opera as a multidisciplinary form.
At the heart of our work is the ambition to discover and support the development of new talent and new ideas. We are working with outstanding artists who are new to opera, especially those who have been ignored or excluded by opera, with young people across Wales, and with communities who have not traditionally participated in opera. Developing the diversity of the company, the people we work with and the audiences we reach.
Led by Artistic Associate Elayce Ismail and Director Michael McCarthy, Music Theatre Wales presents New Directions, three collaborations from artists new to opera. New Directions presents a bold vision staying true to the company origins while responding to the need to create new opera for our times.
Artists: Tumi Williams and Sita Thomas, Renell Shaw and Rachael Young, Krystal S. Lowe and Jasmin Kent Rodgman.
Since 2019 Music Theatre Wales have been reviewing their work and creative process. New Directions is a chance to question what opera is and what it should be by commissioning and working with artists who have been ignored or excluded from creating opera previously. The stories, how work is created, the music and the audiences that are invited to experience opera, have all been redefined through three new collaborations.
Writer, composer and performer Tumi Williams and multidisciplinary director and dramaturg Sita Thomas collaborated on The House of Jollof Opera, an exploration and expansion of the operatic form. The story is about budding chef Adeola who brings style and his speciality, vegan Jollof, to impress Asha, a tired and hard-working boss of a neighbourhood cafe.
Tumi Williams said: ‘This project gave me the freedom to work with opera, but in the way that I could work with it, I wanted to bridge the traditions of opera and bring my culture into that context. I felt challenged making this work with Sita because it represents me, and I wasn’t sure if it was something people wanted to see. Sita and I bounced off each other to make the piece and this creative process has pushed me, and it was new and interesting to have a dialogue with an opera singer.’
Pride (A Lion’s Roar) is created by composer and music producer Renell Shaw and artist and writer Rachael Young, with visuals by Kyle Legall. Pride (A Lion’s Roar) narrates the experience of prejudice that many people of colour have endured: of being told that you are ‘aggressive’ or ‘too loud’ because your metaphorical roars are unfamiliar in the environments that you have to operate within. Of being made to feel like you have to make yourself smaller to be accepted, turning your roar into a purr so that others don’t feel threatened.
Rachael Young said: ‘I had never been to the opera before as it was always too expensive, but when I would see something online I would find the scale and visual language very inspiring. So I had a sense of opera and I love the way the voice fills the space. With epic voices and epic scenes I wanted to move opera to a different place, like a graphic novel. I was tackling a new genre and the pandemic opened doors on new things where I could be more experimental across forms. It was a great collaboration with Renell. From early on a theme emerged and we were able to share the development of lyrics and music together.’
Renell Shaw said: ‘I’m excited about exploring new ways to fuse musical genres and express narrative. Opera vocalists are powerful and dynamic in a way that is specific to their genre; the idea of taking that sound and respectfully placing it in a world where it may not normally be heard opens up endless possibilities for me.’
Reflecting on new forms and spaces for music theatre to exist within, writer and dancer Krystal S. Lowe and composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman have created a work that draws on the theatre of opera, the emotion and expression of lieder and the innateness of dance. Somehow is an exploration of intimacy and relationships, not only between the music and movement but between performer and audience, blurring the lines between onstage and onscreen. Somehow offers a redefined operatic experience that embodies how we live today and our connections with one another.
Krystal S. Lowe said: ‘With Somehow I didn’t want to try to steer the audience to an understanding of the meaning, but to offer music, movement, and voice, allowing them to connect with the character and to craft their own narrative. As a writer and dancer developing my audio description practice, I wanted to achieve an audio description that draws audiences into an intimate space that isn’t crowded but instead leaves room for reflection. The writing for this work was inspired by relationships in my own life, including my relationship with myself. The feeling of being deeply known and understood; connecting with a person or version of self. Elayce and Michael gave us the space, resources, and time to do this work in a programme that is core to MTW’s vision for their company, and it feels essential, authentic, and innovative.’
Elayce Ismail, artistic associate, Music Theatre Wales said: ‘There are so many barriers to working in opera, and also to accessing it as an audience member, from the perception of what the art form is and who it is for, through to access to training. New Directions aims to chip away at some of these barriers and revitalise what opera can be, who makes it and who it’s made for. Opera is such a dynamic art form and I think it can absolutely resonate with contemporary audiences, but to do so it needs new artists and new ideas to invigorate, challenge and develop it. For New Directions we’ve brought together three brilliant pairs of collaborators, who each bring different creative practices to the mix, and who have been generous and inquisitive in our discussions about the potential of opera. It’s been wonderful seeing how each of our creators has embraced the challenge, and the added element of creating work remotely for digital audiences, to make three unique and compelling new operatic works.’
Michael McCarthy, director, Music Theatre Wales said: ‘MTW has been a driving force for change and development in opera in the UK. In 1988, we set out to give opera a bit of a kick, questioning the way it was written and how it was produced and perceived. We knew smaller scale opera had the capacity to deliver remarkable and memorable experiences, created by contemporary artists in a way that was meaningful and at the same time challenging – musically and dramatically. We shared this work with audiences across Wales, the UK and beyond, with touring as the primary way to offer access. With ground-breaking productions like Denis & Katya, The Trial, The Killing Flower and Passion, we have achieved much, but the world has changed and so must we. If we want to reach new audiences and stimulate wider interest in the creation of new opera with the huge potential it has, we need to be working with artists who can lead us in new and unexpected directions.’
All three works will be available to watch free online at www.musictheatre.wales with The House of Jollof Opera launching on Friday 24 September, Pride (A Lion’s Roar) on Friday 8 October and Somehow on Friday 22 October.