A Work in Progress: Insurrection with Peter Braithwaite
I love the idea of an artistic work being shaped and formed continuously — this is much more Shakespeare or 18th century music style. It’s only now that everything must be ‘authentic’ and take one form.
In the smaller theatre of the Royal Opera House (which is really hard to find unless you’re directed by a kind doorperson — better signage in the foyer please!) a staged collaborative encounter fused together the history and culture of Barbados, classical music and folk songs, Peter Braithwaite’s own family history and the legacy of enslavement. As this was also the last performance there was a Q&A at the end too where the audience could feed back and even chat with performers at the end. Best of all the cast members sat in the audience at points! (Which can lead to a funny moment if you’re trying to help someone not sit in the marked seat — only they let you know that they are a cast member and you have to keep the secret! Apologies to soprano Rachel for my over helpfulness, your kindness and loved your beautiful voice. Note to self for another immersive performance!)
Adopting the carnival folk emblem of Shaggy Bear, Peter Braithwaite shared his struggles as a black baritone — the stereotyping that he and amazing musical director Yshani Perinpanayagam had put upon them in what they could sing and even be in fictional productions. We got to hear his amazing voice! How I want to hear his full Magic Flute. With a mixture of musical instruments and styles, classical music and folk music dueted backwards and forwards, research papers rained down on the stage and a truckload of books were wheeled on. (Though even some of the instruments were brought in by the colonial system).
The pain of his existence continues — he exists due to exploitation and forced, violent acts, and yet one of his white ancestors was musical — perhaps coming to pass in his own incredible baritone voice. This same ancestor wrote a book on ‘breeding’ slaves — evidence of the sickening inhumanity of a vile system. Uniquely for an operatic creation, silence was used too— cast members took a moment of rest and we also took a moment’s silence to remember enslaved peoples (and for many, ancestors). At one point, in recreating the uprising in Barbados, we were plunged into darkness and using our covered torches on our phones, gradually revealed the light. A beautiful letter of his ancestor was read, contrasted with the horrible silencing of enslaved people through rules and regulations confiscating and burning instruments (and punishments if found), a recording of singing of an 18th century hymn in a church contrasted with a folk song about a wife murdering her husband with soprano embellishments. I learnt that Handel made money from investments in the slave trade and worse still there was an opera staged around the time of the Barbados insurrection celebrating stereotypes and an enslaved person who doesn’t want freedom. (Although within the Guardian article, Peter Braithwaite reveals a more convoluted family history then presented in the performance). I want the 3 act opera soon! An hour isn’t enough.
Best of all there was joy and a dance off at the end! (and some communal singing!) Also when the leaning, fidgety, must film everything (illegally) 9 foot man next to me allowed (!) loved seeing Yshani Perinpanayagam conducting. (That was my joy — not having my view blocked!!! Thankfully most of the production was centrally placed and sought to engage all).
From the Q&A I came away with many thoughts — the raising of access and cost of culture (how price excludes working class people); the repeated sadness that ‘this’ or ‘that’ venue is ‘not for me’; how people can exclude themselves from culture by thinking this — therefore who is culture for and ‘whose culture?’. There was also room for disagreement — one lady said that the white ancestor (manifested as silent grimy stone) should be allowed ‘to speak’ — that it was important to recognise the humanity of those who enslaved others, and hear them. Another speaker wanted exclusive culture — black culture for black people alone; Dr Stefan Walcott very much wanted inclusion. Within the audience I overheard a fascinating conversation about which musical styles were Barbadian and which Trinidadian and what even belonged in carnival? I wish this gentleman had taken to the mic because he had an important contribution to bring.
For me, the only sour note was the anti-Christian tone of the production. Some nuance needs to be made between the way enslavers misused Christianity as a way of persecution (bowdlerised Bibles, denial of literacy and language, forced Baptism, denial of access to church services, twisting the scriptures for their own evil purposes) and Christianity itself, which is most definitely not a white man’s religion (though in our arrogance we act like it). It is to be lauded that enslaved people’s embraced Christianity and baptism as a way of freedom, restoration of image and humanity, vitality, literacy and hope, and gave back something wonderful to the world. What was meant for evil was turned to their good, and Christianity should be seen as one of the religions of the ancestors rather than as a white European thing. The singing of the elders in church should be seen as tremendous testimony to the Lord’s faithfulness and their staying power rather than just spiritual oppression. At the same time I’m not denying that Christian tenets were misused and abused appallingly — I’m so glad that Jesus is bigger and better than the ways in which He was misrepresented by enslavers. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x9X5BWrdEBE
British opera singer creates work to reveal humanity of enslaved ancestors | Opera | The Guardian