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ON LONDON FIELDS A Community Opera for Hackney
Hackney Empire 19 & 20 November 2004


Sally Burgess; Alison Buchanan; Simon Thorpe; Jonathan Gunthorpe

DIRECTOR Martin Lloyd-Evans
STAGE MANAGER Charlotte Warner

ORCHESTRAS Academy of St Martin in the Fields/Cambridge Heath Brass/Centre forYoung Musicians Hackney/RazzamaSaz/Young Jazz Hackney

CHOIRS I Can Sing Youth Choir/ The Sharp Hoxtoners/ The Robinson Singers/ The Wing-It Singers/ Emashi

A quick over-night note after the premiere of On London Fields. The essence of community opera is community involvement, hence my unapologetic listing of everyone involved, as with previous community operas in Hackney, a world leader in this genre.

There are two ways to approach community opera. Benjamin Britten has left his mark with several (Noyes Floode, Saint Nicholas etc) by imprinting firmly his own style and genius on music which remains in the repertoire. Jonathan Dove likewise composed two wonderful operas of enduring worth, located specifically in the Hackney area, but transferable and deserving to be taken up elsewhere. For full appreciation of the movement's significance, this report should be read in conjunction with my reviews of Jonathan Dove's two more durable community operas for Hackney, Palace in the Sky and The Hackney Chronicles.

Matthew King approached the task more democratically, drawing musical ideas from a lengthy series of workshops in which words (to be assembled and shaped by Alasdair Middleton) and tunes emerged from discussions and try-outs with the future participants. The process is fully described in the valuable, lavishly illustrated programme book which is well worth acquiring (a bargain at £2).

On this showing (I did not know his music) King is a good professional practitioner, but the eclectic and polyglot score does not display the unquestionable genius of those other two composers - nor was it intended to.

On London Fields is a political opera (like many of Verdi's) with rioting and the execution of Charles I in a breathlessly swift prologue; a (historically authentic) reluctant prophetess (Cassandra, Sorostris....) who supported the Parliamentarians and was later imprisoned by them, central to a libretto which provides major parts for multi-ethnic choruses as Ranters, Levellers, Fifth-Monarchists, Quakers Elders etc. This story of 17th C Hackney,"the fields where Levellers dug for equality" became a more universal fable that "reflected the strangeness, beauty and horror of Hackney today".

Sally Burgess took the central part of Hannah Trapnel strongly, even though (without surtitles) too many of her words failed to get across in the large theatre. Her big scene in the second act was over-extended - it took forever to get her up the stairs to deliver the fateful prophecy aria, which was the cue for Sir Bawnagayne Surly (Jonathan Gunthorpe) to order her arrest and the break-up of the meeting. The affectionate couple expecting their new baby were well taken by Simon Thorpe, who was killed by the soldiers, 'unfortunate agents of a repressive regime',and by Deborah (Alison Buchanan) as his pregnant widow left alone on stage to lament and launch the overlong final scene, which culminated in a massed chorus of defiant hope for future freedoms.

The huge educational team, coordinated by the Hackney Music Development Trust, worked so that the project would work on many levels and make a lasting contribution to Hackney's revival and cultural development, "a process during which people have discovered creativity within themselves".

The achievements were very substantial; booked out performances received with enormous enthusiasm and endless curtain calls, glowing faces on very young and elderly participants, who had been directed and coordinated with military precision and, in their striking costumes, made memorable tableaux on well lit, clever settings, the lead singers giving strong arias and ensembles just like a 'real' opera.

Orchestral groups were distributed all over the theatre up to the roof (what you could hear depended on where you sat) and in the vast refurbished auditorium of the historic Hackney Empire there was a great feeling of inclusion in the events on stage.

Other participants: William Bourdillon, Kathy Briscoe, Wendy Haslam, Nigel Knapp, Shanola Linton, Tammy Loughran, Gini Mags, Clare Comely, Nicola Gabriel, Kathleen Greene, Sam Hellmuth, Fran Isherwood, Bola Kadara, Gina Long, Marta Naranjo, Eleanor Walker-Jung, Ciara Burrows, Lina Johnsson, Joanne McGahon, Martina Messing, Mary Wurie, Michael May, Jerry Howell, Deryl Walsh, Bertie Wyer, Farquhar McKay

DESIGNER Andrea Carr/ DEPUTY STAGE MANAGER Wendy Griffin-Reid/ LIGHTING DESIGNER Simon Corder/ ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGERS Stephanie Hernandez, Jim Mansel/ MOVEMENT CO-ORDINATOR Steve Elias/ PROJECTION DESIGN Patrick Watkinson/COSTUME MAKERS Niccoline Bailey Jane Barker Stephen Buss Sydney Florence Jane Freer Melpa Griffith Becci Hill Petra Huber Della Kobic Sue Longbridge Mariam Phillips Kate Vince Jude Ward/ COMPANY MANAGER Stephanie Gill/ ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Dylan Lowthian/ COSTUME SUPERVISOR Helen Johnson/ HAIR AND MAKEUP Christina Martin/ ASSISTANT MUSIC DIRECTOR Liz Rowe/ ASSISTANT COSTUME SUPERVISOR Menna Beynon/ MUSIC STAFF Frances Hills Lindy Tennent-Brown/ WARDROBE MISTRESS Clare Pegg/ PRODUCTION ELECTRICIAN Jono Kenyon/ WARDROBE ASSISTANT Esra Gungor/ SET BUILT BY Rocket Scenery

See also Richard Morrison's hostile review in The Times (Nov. 22) and Mrs Dorothy Sefton-Green's response to it below, putting into perspective the "multiple objectives" of the project (The Times Nov. 25)

Richard Morrison at the Hackney Empire, E8
: THE road to bad art is paved with good intentions. - - On London Fields, however, is a lamentable dud. - - Alasdair Middleton’s libretto — a half-baked mishmash about a 17th-century Hackney woman who has visions and stirs up the populace, first against the Royalists and then against the Puritans — ran out of steam well before the interval. And although Matthew King’s music had some attractive features — a strong jazzy big-band feel and a way of building large ensembles by piling up simple choral riffs — it petered out into what may qualify as the lamest operatic finale in history. - - The whole evening reeked of condescension and pretension. Amateur choirs and children can, and do, sing with a hundred times more gusto, excitement and musicality than they did here (and most don’t get a penny of public funding). To present what we saw on Friday to a paying public just because it showcases people from a “poor borough”, or people who are still learning English, was frankly condescending. And to soak up dollops of subsidy, claiming that this sort of show “breaks down elitist barriers”, is not only pretentious but deluded. Its perpetrators, the Hackney Music Development Trust, and their backers need to rethink from top to bottom

Community opera
From Mrs Dorothy Sefton-Green

Sir, Richard Morrison (T2, November 22) may write whatever he thinks about an opera performance, but if he wishes to evaluate funding of an educational project, which is what the Hackney Empire production of On London Fields was, perhaps he should take into account its multiple objectives.
The language and literacy courses for immigrants, the writing and composition workshops with librettist and composer giving people a real input into opera construction, the enormous enjoyment of 250 performers forging a true community spirit, the 28 local primary schoolchildren who enjoyed their school operas so much that they relished the opportunity to subject themselves to professional discipline for three months, are a few of the many outcomes which should be taken into account before any comment is made about funding.
The professionals’ attitude towards the amateur performers was never condescending. Whether the obvious audience enjoyment of full houses over three performances should be considered as an outcome depends on one’s attitude towards elitism.
Yours faithfully,
47 Brim Hill, N2 0HA.
November 22


© Peter Grahame Woolf