Friday, November 11, 2011

On Tragedy

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I studied classics before pursuing music. One of the things that has drawn me to opera since my degree is its similarity to Greek Tragedy. Of course, there are comic operas (and Greek comedies, for that matter, which I love just as much and find almost as interesting), but I want to talk about tragedy and the tragic here. I promise that’s not as depressing as it sounds.

Greek tragedy, for me, is one of the most fascinating art forms ever. It’s over 2000 years old, still going strong, and - believe it or not - still relevant. It’s the basis of so many of our stories, even now. Perhaps it’s because it’s hard to improve on a story almost as old as time (as we know it); perhaps it’s because Greek tragedy plays on themes that are utterly universal to our Western world - the relationship between religion and state, the perils of excess and self-denial, the complexities of justice. Most of us worship different gods, these days, but surprisingly little else has changed. For my money, Greek tragedy is the art that comes closest to having humanity at its core.

Opera has a very similar structure to Greek tragedy, and seems to have evolved in quite a similar way. Like the earliest tragedies, the earliest operas deal with mythical (or fictional, or ancient historical) stories, rarely have more than two characters on stage at once, and have long passages of introspection followed by choral commentary. As the benchmark was raised - both dramatically and musically - it became common practice to include several characters on stage at once, engaging in complex and often overlaid dialogue.

Unlike tragedy, however, opera moved away from myth and ancient history to engage with more contemporary writing. In a way, that’s very positive. There are only so many times you can retell a story that’s already at least a thousand years old, after all, and all art must move with the times or be left behind. But, somewhere between its obsession with killing off the main female character and its labyrinthine plots, opera seems to have lost sight of how tragedy really works.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Dead heroines: Dido

Like many of its contemporary works, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas has quite an uncertain history. Popular theory suggests that it was written to be performed at a girls’ school by the school’s students. Scholars like to debate who played Aeneas and where all the tenors and basses came from, though the latter is probably redundant speculation considering that female tenors and basses exist. With our extensive cast of two, Better Strangers’ Aeneas will be played by a woman and sung in soprano tessitura. No surprises there, unless you’re new to this whole project. In which case, hi!

The most famous rendition of the story of Dido and Aeneas comes from Virgil’s Aeneid. As with much Classical mythology, our protagonists appear as pawns on the giant chessboard of the gods. Aeneas, son of Venus and last survivor of the ruling dynasty of Troy, has escaped to sea. After a whopping great storm, he washes up on the shores of Carthage in North Africa, where he is taken in by Dido, the queen of the state. Dido’s having kind of a rough time at the moment. She’s sworn eternal fidelity to the ghost of her late husband; she’s got a country to rule, subjects to feed, and neighbouring tribes to fend away from the city walls and her marital bed.

The gods - particularly Juno, everyone’s favourite antagonist - decide it would be lulzy to make Dido fall in love with Aeneas, incurring the wrath of the Furies and the neighbouring tribes in a single stroke of Aeneas’ heroic wang. When Aeneas leaves for Italy, prompted by Mercury (who stops his ears so he spends, like, a week completely blanking her, which is really uncool), Dido is bereft. She has broken her oath, she has no further excuse not to marry a local chieftain and surrender her kingdom, and her authority is in ruins. She chooses to take what’s left of her dignity and throw herself onto a huge pyre, which is the last thing Aeneas sees when he looks back towards Carthage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Thank you

We're completely overwhelmed by the response to our funding campaign on Crowdfunder. We've raised a total of £1,255, which will pay for venue hire, costuming, props and publicity, and will go some way towards paying our dudes as well. Any excess will go towards our forthcoming projects, which are based around taking the show on tour in venues and schools across the country.

A couple of you have asked why we chose to use Crowdfunder as opposed to just canvassing via Paypal. Crowdfunder asks project managers to set a target, and funders donate an amount of their choosing towards it. If the set target isn't met, the project doesn't get any money. On some level, this seems harsh - after all, every little helps, right? - but on another level it makes a lot of sense: if the project doesn't meet its target and can't go ahead, there's a mechanism in place to ensure that the managers can't just take the money and run. Being a new company, we felt it was important that our funders could feel secure in pledging their money to us.

Crowdfunder vet the projects thoroughly before putting a bid online. After that, they are more supportive than I could ever have expected - they gave us an extra week when we looked like we might be falling behind, and they allowed us at the end to lower the target so that we could compromise on an amount that would allow us to move forward, even if it's not quite as much as we were hoping for. All this was done at their prompting and not ours. Rose at Crowdfunder support, you're a star. We love you. Mwah.

We would definitely recommend the use of Crowdfunder to anyone else who was thinking of trying to raise money by crowdfunding - as fiddly as the process may look to start with, it's definitely worth it for the credibility of the process and for the stellar customer support we've received. Thanks to them. And thanks to you, everyone who's put their hands in their pockets for us. We couldn't have done this without you.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Fach Passing

Following on from Cloud's last post about singing the 'wrong' music for your 'fach' or voice type, I'm going to look at the issue from a slightly different perspective.

Throughout my singing life, I have had several of those experiences with singing teachers. A recent-ish example – I went in for a consultation with a teacher who knew me vaguely although not well. After I had sung for them for maybe 20 minutes, they looked at me funny, and said, you know, I don’t think you’re a mezzo.

No shit.

I am most comfortable singing up above the stave. I am not as much queen of the high cs as I used to be when I was slightly younger and, on the matter of vocal acrobatics at least, more fearless, but I am absolutely and definitely a soprano.

But, see, there is an expectation not just about what sort of voice type will sing what kind of music, but what kind of voice type will characterise different personality types.

I am also, to put it bluntly, pretty damn butch. Again, less than I was when I was younger and, on the matter of femininity at least, more fearful. I am clumpy, stompy; one of life’s hairy-legged angry feminists. When I find graceful, it is an embodied, earthy kind of experience, not the disembodied floatiness that the inexperienced expect ought to go hand in hand with a high, angelic voice.

Strangely enough, it turns out you cannot judge on appearances.

And yet, the stereotypes are there. Flightiness and floatiness. Or, poise and pose. Mezzos are the ones who are angry, who are earth mothers and drag-kings, who play men and pass, visually if not vocally.

We are coming pretty close to saying - the sound of your voice limits the emotions you can express. Only loud women can be angry. Only gentle women can be in love. Of course, this is an art form where tone is used as a metaphor for content, where emotions are signed and signalled through means other than words. Of course, there is an assumption that anger will not be gentle, that love will not be violent.

We categorise and then give meaning to the categories. I am absolutely definitely a soprano, I said, not three paragraphs back. What does that even mean? I sing high notes, and violent emotions. And fear holds me back from both.

I sing regularly with a bloke with profound and multiple learning disabilities, whose voice glides effortlessly from basso profundo gravel to floating soprano glissandi. Who has never learned to categorise his voice into parcels he is and isn’t allowed to make music with. We duet, across space and understanding. And I do not want to call it inspirational, or freeing, or natural – I am so, so aware of his being relegated to the status of a lesson in a life that counts. But here’s something that’s true. When I sing with him, I am not a soprano. And I can manage graceful, in his company, in that space, where he is freed from constraints of category, and so am I.

My voice has limits. Boundaries. There are things I cannot say, or even sing. Limits of biology, of possibility, and courage. But limits of convention – if high, not low; if butch, not feminine; the imposed binary opposites of gender that radiate outwards into just about every aspect of our life. Those limits are things that can be opposed, deconstructed, thought through or worked around.

What does it mean to pair a butch voice with a femme body, or vice versa? A butch range with a femme tone? I don’t know, and more than that – I can’t find out, without... performance, audience, reaction, conversation. People find it disturbing. I know that from too many stories of the difficulty trans friends get into when they open their mouths and the tone that comes out is unexpected.

I know what it feels to sing as my butch-femme self. It feels right.

And I tell you something else, which you will have heard said before if you are a reader of feminism on the internet. I am tired of watching my tone.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Fach the Tyranny, or The Importance of Being Dramatic

Hey, you! Yes, you! Do you like music? Do you like feminism? Do you like fun? Do you have a spare fiver? If you do, please donate to Better Strangers on our Crowdfunder page!

A lot of people ask me how I came to be an opera singer. The answer is long and complicated, but can be condensed down to this: I’ve been doing it since I was little; I’m good at it; and it Just Made Sense.

WonderKid!Clouds was pretty full of herself. I was told, back then, that I was something special - that I had an exceptional voice which would bring me great success. I still get told that I have a lovely voice. The one thing that they don’t tell you when you’re an idealistic little kid is that having a lovely voice doesn’t actually get you all that far.

It will surprise precisely no-one when I say that all voices are different. In classical singing, we refer to different voice types as fãcher (singular form fach). As well as Soprano/Mezzo/Alto/Countertenor/Tenor/Baritone/Bass, there are further classifications within each pitch group: soubrette, lyric, coloratura, dramatic. A very, very basic analysis goes as follows: Soubrettes have small, light voices and do best in early music through to Mozart; light lyrics can extend through Beethoven into some Romantic repertoire; full lyrics and coloratura can sing the really famous stuff; and dramatics sing Verdi and Wagner. Essentially, the difference between soubrette/light lyric and dramatic is the difference between a choirboy and the woman in the horned helmet.

I am a soubrette soprano, which periodically gives me a bit of an identity crisis. See, lyric or coloratura is where the money’s at. Mozart still gets performed reasonably often, but early music is a bit of a niche market. Which is a shame, because I think it’s glorious, but that’s another debate for another post. Much as I love early music, I also love some of the later romantic repertoire and would dearly love to sing that on a stage for money. No dice.

I hesitate, here, to say that my voice is “different”. All voices are different. Jessie has a very different voice to mine, but the thing we have in common is that neither of our voice types is particularly easy to market. In my case, there is one practical reason why I won’t get hired to sing Puccini anytime soon: my voice isn’t very loud. It will grow, I’m told, with practice and confidence, but as it stands my voice would never carry over an orchestra in a large venue.

(The obvious answer might seem to be to use a microphone. However, aside from the fact that it’s Not Done, most conventional microphones cannot broadcast the dizzying heights of a soprano voice. Believe me, I was in a rock band.)

So I’m not going to be Mimi any time soon. That’s a shame. Can I start practising now, so I can be prepared for when I am ready?

The response, at this point, is divided. If I ask my singing teacher, I am rewarded with a frown and a sharp intake of breath. Oh, no no no. Too big. You’ll hurt yourself. If I ask my vocal coach, however, I am rewarded with an encouraging smile and the promise that I’ll get there really soon - all it will take is plenty of practice and an increase in confidence. Mixed messages, much? There’s clearly no universal law that states that She Who Is Soubrette Will Break Her Voice With Lyric Arias, so whom do I believe?

Practical considerations aside, there is one thing that confuses me about a soubrette attempting bigger repertoire. In these days of orchestral reductions and, yes, microphones (where the venues can afford super expensive ones), I sometimes fail to see why I should be quite so firmly discouraged from trying it out. Sure, I’d be a silly choice for a big opera house production with a full symphony orchestra, but for a little fringe production with a piano or string quartet?

There seems to be this idea that singing certain repertoire with anything less than the ideal voice is bad and wrong and will sound horrible. The quality of my voice, however - the thing that reportedly makes it so pleasant to listen to - doesn’t change, whatever I choose to sing with it. What’s wrong with taking a few risks once in a while?

I’m excited about Ah! Forget My Fate because I get to do just that. I’ll be branching into repertoire I’m usually advised against singing. I’m not going to break my voice on it, because I’ve been doing this long enough to know what is and is not safe for me. I’m just going to sing it, the way I know how, and see where it takes me. If it really does sound awful and wrong, I’ll have learned something about the way these things were written. If it sounds all right, then maybe I can come back onto this blog next month and start really challenging these ideas about what opera “should” sound like. Because, really, why not?

Sunday, August 21, 2011

How to start up an arts company in a recession.

Please help us fund the project! Make a donation by visiting our Crowdfunder page, and tell your friends!

Better Strangers exists by virtue of one of the main principles of entrepreneurship: if no-one else is doing what you want or need to be done, you might as well do it yourself. To the best of my awareness, Better Strangers is the only specifically feminist opera company around; it may well be the only one engaging as closely as we are (or aim to be) with feminist, LGBT, BME, class and disability issues.

As you’ll know, unless you’ve been living in a nuclear bunker under an island for the past two years, now is not exactly the most auspicious time to start up a small arts company with a social agenda. Funding for the arts in the UK has been cut - by 90%, according to placard statistics - and funding for charities and social enterprises is equally difficult to come by. And yet, here we are. I’m not going to say we’re a successful startup, having just announced that we’re postponing our first show due to funding uncertainties, but we’re here, and we’re hoping to make good on everything we’re aiming for.

I am 24 years old. This is my first attempt at managing anything, let alone helping to start up a whole company. I was under no illusions that it was going to be easy. I’m lucky to have a fantastic team behind me - Jessie, to whom inspiration seems to come as naturally as breathing; Sarah, a cool head in a heated time; Philip, who (aside from his excellent piano playing) specialises in telling us politely but firmly what is and is not a really silly idea. So, here is what I’ve learned about starting up a project like ours at a time like this.

1. Believe in the work. The only way you’re ever going to make an arts project work is if it’s something you live, eat, sleep and breathe. People - funders, audiences, whatever - will only care about what you’re doing if you do.

2. Build a solid team. As I’ve mentioned above, we’ve got some amazing people on board with Better Strangers. Make sure that your team is reliable, skilled, and having fun. Listen to your team - if they are telling you something, it is probably worth hearing.

3. Network. You know people. The people you know know more people. The odds are that you can find someone, somewhere in your extended network who can do that thing that you can’t find a provider for. Get to events; talk to people. Promote yourself. Be excited about your projects in the presence of new people. Talk about it on the Internet - it feels like shouting into the void, but someone is listening, I promise.

4. Be organised. Plan ahead. Build a schedule, keep to it, and make sure someone is responsible for keeping everyone on track. Factor in extra time for things going wrong.

4b. Be honest. If you’ve screwed up somewhere, talk it through. The sooner it comes out, the sooner it can be fixed and the easier it will be to build strategies to avoid screwing up the same way again. Do NOT play the blame game - it accomplishes nothing except pissing everybody off. A happy team is a healthy team.

5. Be realistic. I have been trying to do an awful lot of the admin and background work myself. Outside of Better Strangers, I am studying part time and working part time. The combination of these many factors has made me very ill. I have learned a hard lesson about what I can and cannot realistically do by myself. Make sure you’re aware of limits - your own, your team’s, your budget, and the scope of the project.

Are you also part of a feminist opera project? Let us know - it's always nice to have company!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Telling Stories Like Mine

So, after my last blog post here, “Teaching Teenagers to Sing the Heteropatriarchy”, a friend of mine said that she’d never felt the need to hear stories that centered her experience of non-heteronormative sexuality.

“Like you I have noted how much heterosexual boy-meets-girl stories don't generally apply to me. I've never really considered this an issue though, I've never felt a burning desire to see someone of my sexuality take centre stage or to tell my story. [...] I'm clearly missing something fundamental here. [...] Can you help?”

So, that got me thinking. Why do I care so much about broad representation in Opera and other stories? And why don’t some people? Why are some people interested in seeing themselves centre stage, and why are some people not interested in seeing people not like themselves centre stage?

Firstly, I think there’s something to be said for our expectations from the stories we hear being a gendered thing. See, little girls get very used to reading stories where boys are the hero; and learn to enjoy reading stories about people not like them. On the other hand, little boys get very used to reading stories about boys like them, and learn to turn their noses up and stories about anyone who might be different to them. This is certainly a well noted phenomenon across the publishing industry. Just last week I was linked to Max Barry noting the phenomenon.

Similarly, black children learn to identify with white heroes, while white children learn to expect heroes with skin colour the same as theirs. Again, last week I was linked to this on the subject.

This reinforces a cultural phenomenon, a set of power dynamics, which shows people whose experiences are close to the mainstream of a culture that their experience is normal and worth talking about. Conversely, people who’s experiences don’t reflect the mainstream of their culture, and even more so people who’s experiences contradict those of the mainstream in their culture, quickly learn that their experiences are not recognised, not seen as worthwhile - but that they should recognise and appreciate the experiences of the mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong. This is population trend stuff, not personal feelings. I seriously doubt anyone sits down and think to themselves 'I don't want to hear stories about people like me because I think straight nondisabled neurotypical white men are more interesting and important'.

But to me, this goes some way towards explaining why some people don’t find issues of representation important; perhaps even particularly people who are under-represented in a particular medium or genre. People who are under-represented don’t expect to see themselves; don’t see the need to see themselves, because they learn to identify with and value the heterosexual nondisabled white man who is standing centre stage.

It also goes some way to explaining why representation is so important. Where people are under-represented, they become invisible, even to themselves.

I think it's really important for people to hear stories about people like me - and people who are nothing like me - because I know that stories influence thinking. If people don't hear stories, they don't learn to recognise possibilities. Or perhaps those possibilities simply don’t have the same strength of emotional resonance.

For example, lots of parents are unhappy when their children come out as gay not because they're homophobic themselves but because they don't want a future for their child where that child faces homophobia and can't have a family. They are unhappy because they only have one idea about what gay people can be like - and that unhappiness turns the coming out experience into something negative for both parent and child.

Similarly, for someone like you who does not experience strong desires for romantic or sexual relationships at all, there are strong social and cultural expectations about your behaviour - that you will eventually learn some sort of life lesson or meet the right man, and then you will find that romantic relationship central to your life. People believe that in part because that's what all the stories say, from fairytales to operas to soap-operas to sci-fi and beyond. There's an expectation of heterosexual romance, a narrative framework for life, which becomes ingrained, and influence what people believe is possible and normal.

There's a self esteem issue as well. Research suggests that queer people have low self esteem partly connected to the fact that they rarely see positive images of people like them in the media. This article on LGBT suicide mentions that “society influences suicidal behavior by gay and lesbian youth [...] [by] the portrayal of homosexuals as being self-destructive.” Conversely, this article suggests that inclusive media may well be an important factor in lowering youth suicide rates amongst the gay community. Part of my day job currently is helping young LGBT people with precisely that: positive self image. My employers and their funders all recognise that a lack of positive images, positive role-models and narratives, can lead to low self esteem, negative behaviours, lack of aspirations.

In my ideal world, people would get to see stories that both reflected and challenged their experiences.

I love hearing stories about people who are different to me (I’m very used to it, after all!) But when I'm telling stories, creating stories, they will fundamentally come out of my experiences, which do not fit into the narrow confines of the kinds of stories its normal to tell anywhere in mainstream story-telling, but especially in opera.

Hence, this project. I want to create the spaces, the places and the performances which will allow people to tell all sorts of different stories, through the medium I love - the beautiful music of opera. To paraphrase Shakespeare: I do desire that we become Better Strangers....

Don't forget that our art competition is still running! Got a creative streak? Come and see what you can do with out words...

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

"Don't you guys have anything better to do?"

This is the question any activist of any stripe will hear at least once in their life. Or, more likely, once an hour.

I mean, their interlocutor will go on to say, there are bigger problems/natural disasters/starving children in $DEVELOPING_COUNTRY/greater social injustices in this country than problematic presentations of women and minorities in the arts. Why focus on that when there’s so much else you could be doing?

You’ve got me with the starving kids in the developing country, imaginary interlocutor. Starving kids can’t eat opera. We can’t sing floods away, either. We’d like to, but we can’t. But I’d like to talk to you a bit about the greater social injustices, because that is something we can change. Yes, even through opera.

There is an age-old saying about history being written by the winners. Who writes the history after the battle is won - when the soldiers have put down their weapons and picked up their tools and started building everything back up again? Traditionally, a ruler would have a group of people in charge of arts and culture, and those people would go and find people they could trust to make the ruler (and themselves) look good, and get them to write things. They picked painters who would tactfully leave out their less attractive features. You get the idea.

And the people who don’t make them look good? The poor people who reflect badly on their ability to provide for their subjects? The ones who are a funny colour and look a bit suspicious? The ones who can’t even walk by themselves? They get left out too; or they get left in with horrible hairy warts and bad teeth, or a fetish for goats. Which is a shame.

Visibility is a big thing for us and a major reason why we exist. Jessie’s going to tell you more about that in the next blog post.

I had a debate with my partner recently about the inclusion of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people in a popular TV series. More specifically, my point was that there were none to be seen. The Barbarian race was portrayed as kinda Mediterranean, I guess, but that was the closest you got. No BME main characters, maybe two or three BME extras. That’s it.

But, argued my partner, it’s set in an alternate-universe-medieval-England type of place! There were no black people in medieval England!

It’s easy to think that, for sure. I mean, the only real evidence we get for BME people being around at that time are people like Othello or Shylock in literature, and Monostatos in opera a hundred or so years later. And Othello was a jealous type who couldn’t master his innate black dude violent streak (who says racial stereotypes evolve?), and Monostatos was a creepy servile type who’d do anything if it meant he could stick it in Pamina, so couldn’t master his innate black dude rapeyness. And Shylock was a dodgy loan shark who would accept a pound of flesh in lieu of cash if people couldn’t pay up, so couldn’t master his innate Jewish love of money and the pain of innocent Christians. Not a great start. But there were others, this much I can tell you with a degree of certainty.

Before I studied music, I studied literature. Before I studied literature, I studied Classics. In Classical times, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the dominant culture du jour and places like Egypt. Egypt was a pretty big deal, actually. It had the world’s biggest library, loads of cash crops, spices, textiles and so on. It was the kind of country you definitely wanted on side. So those places ended up with a colony and an established trade route. So slaves were taken over to mainland Europe, and traders and skilled workers and people hoping for a better life and Roman citizenship would move over there. Some of them would earn some money and go back home. Some of them would have settled; slaves would have been freed and stayed put with the families they already had. By Julius Caesar’s time, there was an Egyptian quarter in Rome. Go figure if some of these guys didn’t eventually make their way over to Britain.

Of course, there’s little reference to them in art and literature that isn’t unflattering and racist. Artists and writers of the time often did their best to pretend that there were no strange and hideous BME or Jewish or disabled people in their perfect, white universe. Art and literary historians might well assume, on that basis, that there weren’t any there. Not so.

By extension, there were almost certainly strong, capable women, LGBTQUIA people, disabled people, people on low incomes and all sorts. They just weren’t talked about. It was more current, and more convenient, for the artists and writers and composers of the time to present them as victims or villains. That fits with their paradigm - all that is good is white, upper (or, later, middle) class, and almost invariably male. Anyone else was evil or needed help; they existed to make the rich white dudes look better.

So, by acknowledging that most opera written up until this point presents a skewed and biased worldview, we are...well, that’s it. We can’t go back and rewrite it, because we are not in the business of censorship. We just think it’s really important that the flaws are discussed openly, so that everyone is aware that things have moved on and must continue to do so. We’re not asking anyone to edit the bad parts out, and above all - and this is important - we are not asking anyone not to like it. The music is still beautiful, and the performers aren’t bad people or bad performers for taking part, provided they can question the message. We talk about its flaws, and we emerge a little wiser for how to think of the people involved, how to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past, and how even ugly sentiments can be made to sound or look beautiful.

As performers and directors, we can also be a little creative with our casting choices. You could put on a Magic Flute where everyone but Monostatos is played by black singers. You could re-cast a fey heroic tenor as an alto. You could employ female tenors and basses (they exist!) and experiment with the results. All kinds of interesting scenarios play out with trans, genderqueer or non-binary-gendered singers. You could experiment with different vocal and body types and see how these impact on a role. You could bother to cast disabled people, you know, at all. There’s all kinds of interesting stuff that can be done here - endless possibilities which Jessie and I are looking forward to playing with as our casting pool grows.

We’re also looking forward to commissioning new opera and music theatre that tells more people’s stories. Everyone has a story. We love stories, and we love music, and there are so many fascinating, heartbreaking, ecstatic and downright strange stories we could tell, and so much music we could tell it with. We’re very excited. Are you?

Hey. Remember our art contest? I bet you're great at art. You should totally enter!

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Legend Begins, As Does an Art Competition

Two queer feminist geeks walk into a cafe. It sounds almost like the start of a joke, doesn't it? Well, sit down, young 'uns, and I'll tell ye a tale.

Jessie and I first met in a pub surrounded by LARPers. We didn't talk much, at first, but we started to realise after a while that we had a few things in common. We both liked LARP, for a start. We also both liked opera, and sang it. We also both thought it was a damn shame that there were so many singing ladies, like ourselves, at the start of what could be a promising career if only there were enough roles to go around. And we were both feminists and activists, and our activism coloured our ideas of what we thought opera could be.

Eventually we decided that we might as well have a proper chat, away from the pub full of LARPers, about opera. And so, a few weeks later, two queer feminists walked into a cafe, and the rest is history.

Some time after that, the same two queer feminists walked into the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, ordered a cup of tea each and an orange meringue, and started talking about Better Strangers in earnest - all the things we loved, and all the things we wanted to play with. And the result was as follows:

Now that our little baby project is all growed up (*sniff*), we're thinking we'd quite like to make this little scrap of paper into some art. Only neither of us is much good at drawing or graphics or anything snazzy like that, so this is where you come in!

Are you good at making things look nice? If so, consider this a prompt. If you can make this little baby scrap of scribbles into a big, sexy work of art, we will put your name on it and it will be used on pretty much all our publicity, ever. So your amazing art will be immortalised on the Internet, flyers, posters, funding applications and all sorts, and we will tell all our friends and funders how brilliant you are. :)

There's no deadline as such, but the sooner the better. Some time in the next 10 days to 2 weeks would be super ideal.

Have at it, you wonderful people! Submissions should go to betterstrangersopera[@]gmail[.]com.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Teaching teenagers to sing the heteropatriarchy

I met my girlfriend as a teenager on an opera summer school. I told her I was a lesbian, and we sat on a bench, in the moonlight, after the show, and held hands. That was the moment I knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with her.

That’s not quite true. Who knows anything about the future when they’re that age? And besides, we’d met before. And we did not actually get together until a year or so after we’d grown out of youth-opera. But still. We sat together, in the moonlight, with the echoes of the singing fading from our ears. That much is true.

By the time we were going to opera summer schools together, I was more-or-less out in my identification of something I had not yet learned to term queer. Lesbian was far too simple a term; for a start, it did not encompass the enormous crush I had on the man conducting the opera, his expressive eyebrows and sure, gentle hands.

(To this day, I have a bit of a thing for conductors. Queer for people who make music happen, you might say. And I have said, musicality being a far more fundamental part of what makes me tick in a relationship than genitalia. And I’m not the only one who’s said it, either; I can quote academics, like Suzanne G. Cusick in Queering the Pitch, who’ve said it too. Music is sexy, and everyone knows it. I certainly know it.)

In fact, the very first time I met my girlfriend was on an opera summer school, or at least a music and drama summer school. We were about ten. It was a production based on Longfellow’s Hiawatha. The only time in about ten years of youth music and drama that the performance featured anything other than a white hero.

We said ‘how’ a lot, and we conflated the unique cultural traditions of multiple groups of Native Americans into one homogeneous mess, which we assumed to be historical rather than contemporary. To the credit of the people running it, the production ended with the symbolically danced genocide of Hiawatha and all his people, signalled by the arrival of white soldiers (who, incidentally, were all played by girls). In fact, it was only when I was checking Wikipedia while writing this blog post that I realised that that’s not how the poem ends, that in Longfellow’s version Hiawatha tells his people to embrace Christianity...

I remember two things about my character in Hiawatha. Firstly, my solo, which I can still sing to this day. And secondly, the fact that I was one of only three people made to wear dresses. The casting was almost gender-blind; by which I mean most of the girls played men, because there were very few boys. Some of the girls played genderless personifications of abstract constructs. There were three actually female characters, Hiawatha’s love interest, her grandmother, and me. I was playing the village singer. Even for the people behind this mixed-gender musical theatre performance, thematically, singing was for girls, in dresses, to perform.

My girlfriend, who I met that week for the very first time, was cast as the personification of famine. My girlfriend has always been what I will call, not resorting to the invisibility of euphemism, fat. She cried, certain that she was being mocked.

She is unhappy. I am uncomfortable in the dress I would never have chosen to wear. Here we are, ten years old, and already learning body fascism, gender policing, cultural homogenisation. Already feeling the sting of it. All through the medium of youth opera.

I am politicised now. I question the things I learned, accidentally, then, along with the notes and the steps. But how many of us will unlearn those unconscious lessons?

Later, the part that always got to me was the fact that everything we performed, everything, ended with a heterosexual wedding. Except, that is, for Dido and Aeneas, which ended instead with death.

Is it worth noting that it was Dido and Aeneas was what we had been performing, my girlfriend and I, before the night when we sat and held hands under the stars? Heterosexual love is rejected. Death, says Dido, explicitly, is the only other option.

But not for us. Not for us.

We’d been cast as witches, of course. Along with the other fat girls, frizzy-haired girls, queer girls. And we had fun with it, too. Laughing at our triumph; mad and bad and powerful, and, for once, undestroyed by the narrative, unpunished for our freedom, revelling in the destruction of others.

I remember, so damn vividly, that the girl who played Dido was blond. I tried, back then, not to care. I tried to pretend it did not matter to me.

You can’t help but take the hidden messages away. In all my years of youth opera, I was never once cast as the heroine. I played a poisoner, one year, in Beggar’s Opera; and an alto one at that, despite my soprano voice. I played witches and unnamed women; I was characterless or I was evil. If I was very lucky, I was simply cast to play men.

Very few of the young people I sang with wanted to be opera stars. Only a handful remained musicians after childhood. I know of people I used to sing with who these days are policemen, social workers, politicians. Who take the lessons they learned from opera into the wider world. Lessons gained from performance: teamwork, confidence, success, ownership and responsibility. And the other lessons, too, whether they want them or not.

Later, I started teaching on these youth opera courses. I never got to choose which operas were going to be performed; it was a while before I realised that even had I had free rein to choose, I would not have been able to do any better. The heteropatriarchy would still have triumphed with a double wedding and a perfect cadence. One ending, one possible narrative. No matter how queer and colourful the cast, no matter how politically aware the director, no matter how much we wanted our music to be transformative, the tyranny of the happy ending locked us in.

We tried as hard as we could, myself and the young female director I worked with. I remember a production of Gondoliers, where we framed the happy ending pose around the two central men, played by girls, the larger holding the smaller in the air, staring into each other’s eyes. A queer image; a female-centred image, visually. Narratively, the erasure of the women who should have mattered, the women they were going to marry whatever our staging said. No way to win; the narrative impossibilities are scored and underlined, in the music.

And so we need new music. New stories. New possibilities of performing our new selves. Because what are the other options? We end up teaching a new generation to sing from the same heteropatriarchal hymn-sheet. Or we do not sing at all.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Of Course I'm Queer: Opera's latest homophobia scandal.

Those of our readers who have been following the arts headlines this week would have found it hard to miss the furore over Lee Hall’s homophobia row with Opera North. The story has been covered in detail at The Guardian and other press, so I’ll try not to get too bogged down in it here. As a summary, the story broke on Monday that a school in Bridlington had pulled its backing for a production written by Lee Hall and staged by Opera North in conjunction with its pupils. Their reason for doing so, according to the latest reports, was an objection to use of the term “queer” to describe one of its central characters.

I sent a few angry tweets in Opera North’s direction on Monday morning, when the story and my anger were both fresh. I can appreciate, now, that Opera North may have had their hands tied somewhat - the production couldn’t have gone ahead without the support of the school, without which they would lose both finance and performers; however, they couldn’t have been seen not to support their writer. What did get my hackles up, however, was their series of responses.

Their first response included the following:
we can appreciate the viewpoint of the school about when they make the decision to teach PSHE to their pupils. This project is part of their formal learning and pupils from the age of 4 are performing, watching and taking part in the entire piece.” (What is it, exactly, about homosexuality that makes it inappropriate for discussion by children? Some of them might even have gay parents.)

Richard Mantle’s closing remark was:
“Opera North feels that the decision by Lee Hall to suggest that the production was cancelled due to a homophobic stance on the part of the company is unacceptable. It is so at odds with the reality of our views on the issue, and so publicly misrepresents the situation in such a demeaning way.” (For why this is a crap response, please see Derailing For Dummies.)

Not So Wunderbar has imagined a more acceptable response.

Let’s take a look at the word the school objected to, by the way.
queer (n.)
1.strange or odd from a conventional viewpoint; unusually different; singular: a queer notion of justice.
of a questionable nature or character; suspicious; shady: Something queer about the language of the prospectus kept investors away.
not feeling physically right or well; giddy, faint, or qualmish: to feel queer.

From here it has come to mean “homosexual” and, more recently, it has come to describe those who identify outside of normative sexuality or gender. Both Jessie and myself identify as queer. Not everyone in the community agrees on the use of the word, but many of us have decided to reclaim it for ourselves. When used as an insult, I suppose I can see why a school might find its use inappropriate (though I might suggest that school is some way behind the times). The context in which Hall used it, however, seems clear to me. Sewerby, the character in question, uses it to describe himself. He self-identifies as queer. Therefore, I would argue, what’s the problem?

As of today, the production is back on track. Hall has substituted “queer” with “gay”, changed a rhyme and, lo and behold, all is scheduled to go ahead. On their blog, Opera North have presented it as a minor artistic difference which has now been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

I remain sceptical, however. Among the whispers surrounding the scandal were that the school had asked for Sewerby to be cut entirely, for all reference to his sexuality to be removed (Hall says in his article: “Word came back from Opera North that, unless I removed the lines "I'm queer" and "I prefer a lad to a lass", the whole project was in jeopardy”), and that East Riding council had hastily retracted a claim that the character was a paedophile. How much of this is true and how much of it is media hearsay, we may never know. The story that broke on Monday - the story I read - was of a school that wanted to erase gay people from its environment and shut down discussion about them, in order to “protect” its children from “unsuitable” subject matter.

Do people really, honestly think that all gay people are paedophiles who hang around school gates and lure children into their lurid, pink, sequined lairs of deviance? Really? Do they also think that Jews eat babies, black people worship Satan and AIDS can be caught from a toilet seat? Because we’re pretty much at that level of ignorance here. Gay people aren’t perverts. They’re not after your children. They’re over there, having a quiet drink and getting on with their lives, just like you.

So now, with my promotional hat on, I say this for our project. Better Strangers is queer-positive. We want to give voice to queer people in opera. We think that gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, asexual, intersex, genderqueer and undecided people - or anyone else I haven’t mentioned who identifies outside of normative sexuality or gender - are people worthy of celebrating, of learning about, and of including, because to erase them would be to erase ourselves in the process. Our mission is to make your - our - voices heard.

Claudia prefers her babies shallow-fried, in case you were curious.