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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Making an opera out of a crisis

By Norman Lebrecht / November 16, 2005

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They are rehearsing the opera in a community hall in Mudchute, a desolate stretch of the Isle of Dogs trapped between the banking towers of Canary Wharf and the thudding aimlessness of deprived estates. It is on streets like these ö vacant at noon, violent at night ö that racialism festers. 'Ten years ago,' says my British-born Bengali driver, 'I couldn't have set foot here and got out alive.'

The opera is based on the tragic death of Stephen Lawence, a budding architect who met his death aged 19 at a Plumstead bus-stop in April 1993. The gang murder was feebly investigated by an institutionally racist police force, a crime without meaning for which no price was paid.

Go make that into an opera. Opera is the art form of the privileged classes, perfected on royal stages over three centuries. It knows nothing of the rhythms of mean streets, the menace in cold air. Opera belongs uptown, among the black ties. Down where the minorities live, the man who makes the music is a deejay. If opera is going to get real about Stephen Lawrence, it will have to burst through party walls and find a set of moves that is not just another chorus of political bromides.

Inside the community hall, at the top right-hand corner of the Orchestra of Trinity College of Music, sits DJ Pierre with a formidable set of turntables. The rest of his section is made up of keyboards, marimba, acoustic guitar, African kora and percussion, with Gospel choir to come. Not bad.

Then the rapper chimes in. Seun Shote has never worked an orchestra before, and it shows. His first set is several lines short and stiff as starch, but second time round he finds a freer improvisation and the string quintet and woodwinds ö college students of the 21st century ö get swaying to his beat as naturally as they brush teeth. By the time DJ Pierre gets his cue from the big man's baton, we are jamming like raspberries and having a high old time - all except one of the string players, there's always one, who complains of repetitive strain.

Cry of Innocence is an ambitious stab at bi-cultural dialogue, an open forum involving a tertiary music college, Greenwich Theatre and a multi-racial production centre, Gyenyame. Its composer, Tunde Jegede, 33, has the blessing of both worlds. Raised in Highbury by a Nigerian father and English mother, he studied cello as a kid at the specialist Purcell School in leafy Bushey and kora every summer in the Gambia. 'I don't do crossover,' says Jegede firmly. 'If I write a string quartet for the Brodskys, that's a proper quartet. If I play in a jazz ensemble, that's something else.'

Jegede sits in the thick of the musicians tapping a hand drum, a painfully thin human bridge across two divergent styles. After taking the commission he grew uneasy about turning Stephen Lawrence into an opera. Two librettists and some sleepless nights later, he decided to write a parable of black immigrant experience, from landing to alienation, with overt religious overtones. The main characters, sung by full-throated Trinity opera singers, are designated The Mother, The Father, The Son of Hope. The restless rap is delivered by The Radical Best Friend, a familiar figure at flashpoints.

The lyrics are simple and declamatory, at times beyond banality ö 'we see all the pain, our tears are like rain'. The music is major-key melodious, redeemed by an occasional 'wrong' semitone, popping up where least expected. 'It is, by any standard, beautiful,' remarks the conductor Terry Edwards. 'Tunde writes a lovely melodic line.'

Edwards, ex-director of the Royal Opera chorus at Covent Garden, has worked at the atonal edge of contemporary music with Luciano Berio and Pierre Boulez, as well as covering the choral mainstream from Bach to Wagner. A former UK basketball international (Tokyo Olympics, 1964), he towers above the musicians with a mild, slightly bemused authority. Not many conductors have ever had to beat time to a chamber ensemble on his left while, on the right, deejay, rapper and band are zipping off an unscripted rhythm. Edwards holds them together by beating four in the bar and trusting both sides to use him as a beacon

'The way it works,' he explains, 'is Tunde plays the people in the band each new piece on the computer and they learn it as "grooves". Our students learn it as notes. Then we bring it together.' Twice in rehearsal, he adjusts his pocket metronome to the deejay's pulse, deferring to the dominant instrument. Yielding authority, he says, is no problem. 'I once said to Boulez, when he was conducting an electronic piece of his: you think you're in charge? You're not ö it's the guy at the back, playing the computer.' Music, whatever the form, imposes an iron logic of its own.

The other force behind the opera is Larry Coke, a lighting designer who worked 30 years at Covent Garden as the only non-white face backstage. Coke set up Gyenyame as a ginger group for cross-communal opera and dance, staging a life of Mary Seacole, the black Florence Nightingale of the Crimean War, at Covent Garden's Linbury Theatre. Coke wrote much of Jegede's final libretto, although lines are being added and cut out all the way through to the dress rehearsal.

It is the improvisatory character of Cry of Innocence and its stylistic contrasts that grip the eye and ear. This is not the first time cut-glass sopranos have been pitched high against a gospel group – Gershwin tried that in Porgy and Bess. But to watch a whiplash rapper ride the crest of an orchestral forte is a genuine awakening. And to see the rap transformed by operatic structure into something like a Rossini recitative suggests that all of us might, after all, be drinking from the same deep well.

'We living in a dark, dark city/ we living in the land of the lost,' raps the Radical Best Friend. That 'we' must be taken inclusively. The city cannot be dark for some and bright for others. Unless we illuminate it equally in all areas, we will be heading for the mayhem that is burning up the outskirts of Paris, the mayhem that happens when a cry of innocence goes unheeded.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001