What was once termed shell-shock and is now identified under the wider term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the subject of a powerful chamber opera that Royal Conservatoire of Scotland-trained composer Marcos Fernandez-Barrero and T.S. Eliot Prize-winning poet Jacob Polley have created for community opera company Opera Sunderland.
The current restrictions on musicians and other performers may have changed the shape of their premiere from a staged show to a stagey film, but the inclusive nature of the company’s work has survived. The first faces we see are those of the community chorus, and the music written for them underscores the entire work. The most powerful musical moments come when the choir combines with tenor Austin Gunn and bass-baritone Andri Bjorn Robertsson, the tormenting, ominous Voices in the head of The Man, sung by baritone Ian Priestley.
The professional cast is completed by mezzo Katherine Aitken, as much a victim of the fall-out from warfare as the returned soldier to whom she is married. She and Priestley provide the connective thread that joins the narrative, but the most resonant details of the libretto come from the other community element – the verbatim testimony of veterans, identified in the credits, that Polley uses.
The show sees action in several theatres of war, from the Second World War to Cyprus, Malaya and Northern Ireland. Director Annie Rigby’s setting of this is built around an unadorned studio space, but there are frames within frames at work in a combination of found film footage and video that echoes and mirrors the central protagonist’s state of mind as well as using the limitations of the way it was possible to realise the composition in a multi-layered way.
The cumulative effect of this is signalled in all sorts of ways, from the symbolic deployment of a range of vintage radios to the transition of the space from a simple home to a scrim-net covered battlefield of marital strife. Priestley is a harrowing picture of torment for most of the time, while Aitken conveys the exasperated but caring dilemma of those fighting on the home front.
Fernandez-Barrero’s score borrows fruitfully from a wide range of sources, the small ensemble often recalling the political theatre of Kurt Weill or the American minimalism of Adams and Glass, especially in the winds and percussion. The instrumentalists, conducted by Glasgow-born Marco Romano, combine with the chorus in a rich mix at times, but the piece ends with breath-catching simplicity as The Woman reassures The Man: “Your Home/You’re Home”.
KEITH BRUCE speaks to Katherine Aitken, who sings The Woman in Opera Sunderland’s film for Remembrance Sunday.
With annual gatherings to mark Armistice Day at War Memorials cancelled because of the pandemic, and the superbly-curated artistic programme marking the centenary of the First World War, 14-18NOW, becoming a memory, Opera Sunderland is filling a major cultural gap on Remembrance Sunday with the premiere of a new opera film, The Soldier’s Return.
Composed by Marcos Fernandez Barrero with a libretto by poet Jacob Polley, the production is directed by Annie Rigby and conducted by Marco Romano. RSAMD-trained artistic director Alison Barton is re-uniting many of the team who produced 2015’s Opera Sunderland community opera Miracle! An Opera of Two Halves.
With a chorus of 25, a seven-piece band and principle cast of four, the sole female role in The Soldier’s Return is in the hands of Edinburgh’s Katherine Aitken, her first since returning from Opera de Lyon. From a post-studies place with the French company’s opera studio, she moved on to the small role of Pippetto in Laurent Pelly’s production of Donizetti’s Viva La Mama, then Cinderella’s wicked sister Tisbe in Stefan Herheim’s staging of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, which visited the Edinburgh Festival in 2018.
Before the shutters came down on the musical world, however, Aitken had already taken the decision to end that chapter of her life and move home.“Lyon was incredibly good to me, and I learned so much working with people of that calibre, and from all over Europe. I’d moved back to Edinburgh from France last year and on the day lockdown happened I was at Scottish Opera.”
Aitken was covering the role of Hermia in the company’s planned production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I saw the first run by the principal cast before we had our first rehearsal, and then they said, ‘thanks very much, now go home.’ I really felt for the principal cast who had spent five weeks building this beautiful show. It was heart-breaking.”
After understudying in Glasgow, the mezzo-soprano had a tour scheduled with Diva Opera before joining Opera Sunderland’s for The Soldier’s Return. Of all the work in her future diary, only this show has survived the pandemic.
“Originally it was to be a live performance at The Point in Sunderland in June, with rehearsals starting in May. Then they thought they’d reschedule it to be a live performance at this time of year, before taking the wise decision that, as there was no guarantee that anything would go ahead, they’d make it a film.” Barton found new partners for the venture in North East film-makers Meerkat Films and sound engineer Ian Stephenson at Simpson Street Studios in Ryton on Tyneside.
“We recorded the soundtrack in August,” says Aitken, “and then we were ‘on set’ in a dance studio in the middle of Newcastle in September. My involvement lasted for three days, and it was a very novel concept, singing along to ourselves like in a pop video.
“It is a completely different way of working. We are so used to live performance, and we were each working individually for much of the time. You are used to learning the notes on your own and then you go into a room with all your colleagues and you adapt and change and create the project as a team. With this we had to create everything individually, with the conductor talking to us over Zoom. It didn’t evolve into the normal team effort until much further down the line, and that was a difficult thing to do.
“In a way it is a great thing that opera is having to adapt and become much more accessible to a wider potential audience. So it is adding another direction going forward – but it is not quite the same.” The process meant that Aitken did not even meet her opposite number, The Man, sung by baritone Ian Priestley, until after all the music had been recorded and the four principals were in the one room for filming.
“It is about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder essentially, and a man who has come back from being in the services. The stories he tells are of different conflicts throughout history, so he couldn’t have been part of all of them, and the takeaway is the trauma that all soldiers bring back home with them.
“I play his wife and the story is how he and she cope with what has happened to him, and his inability to differentiate between what’s real and what’s not real, and the pain that causes the people around him. “The music is beautiful and actually quite cinematic, so it works really well as a film. There are lots of lovely themes; it is really melodic. The Opera Sunderland ethos is to create opera for everybody, so the music is very accessible with lots of body percussion, and samples from hymns and pop music – it is a really clever score.”
Aitken speculates that it is, nonetheless, a very different entity from anything that might have been created in live performance. “Although we worked on it individually, it is actually quite an ensemble piece, particularly for the other two voices, who often sing in duet. We were coming up with our own ideas about tonal colours or ways of phrasing the lines, and then hoping it would work with the other person.
“The Woman never interacts with the two voices, as they are voices inside his head, so not meeting Ian until we were on set, with the music already pre-recorded, was really interesting – a challenge, but at the same time liberating in that you had the chance to put your own stamp on something completely. Having such autonomy in a role is quite a novel concept.”
The two Voices are sung by tenor Austin Gunn and bass-baritone Andri Bjorn Robertsson, who was the only member of the cast Aitken had worked with previously. “I know Andri because we were both in George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence in Lyon last year, but this time we were only in the same room together for a couple of hours.”
Aitken now lives in Leith and is grateful that she relocated before the Covid disaster struck. “It is good to have a bit of time to learn some roles I’ve wanted to learn for ages, to get into running again and do yoga, as well as seeing my family and friends. Being home for any period of time is a real novelty, but you can’t plan anything because no-one knows what’s going to happen.”
Opera Sunderland’s The Soldier’s Return will premiere on the company’s website immediately after the two minute silence at 11am on Sunday, November 8 and will be available online until Monday 30 November. It is streaming free, but donations to support the company’s work are welcome.