Rosabella Gregory, composer of Where No Bell Tolls, talks about the biographical work she will be presenting with Mosaic as part of this year’s Grimeborn festival. Featuring an extensive programme of events and workshops, the showcase series uniquely champions BAME artists and creatives working in opera.
I am the composer of Where No Bell Tolls, and my twin sister Dina is the librettist, and also my longstanding collaborator. Together we have been telling stories with music from an early age, and our first success was when we won the 1992 “New Visions, New Voices” competition, to write an original opera, which was run by the Baylis Programme at English National Opera. It was then that we first met David Sulkin OBE – founder of the Baylis Programme and director of our rock-opera, Melissa’s Maelstrom. This was an incredibly exciting thing to happen to two 16 year old girls from Devon….
Fast-forward 25 years and it has been hugely gratifying to be working with David again, this time in his role as Director of Artist Development at the National Opera Studio. To mark their 40th anniversary, the NOS commissioned 12 writing teams, (of which we were 1) to write an original aria for a specific NOS artist, Sinéad O’Kelly (mezzo-soprano) and répétiteur Florent Mourier.
All 12 arias were performed in a sumptuous and beautifully directed concert 12:40 at Hoxton Hall in June of this year. It was here that Jennifer Farmer – of the Mosaic Opera Collective – saw Where No Bell Tolls and invited us to be a part of the Mosaic line-up within this year’s Grimeborn Festival.
For our upcoming performances at Grimeborn we are delighted to have the brilliant Heather Lowe and répétiteur, Igor Horvat breath their musical magic into our aria.
Our brief, as specified by David, was to conceive of a complete opera, from which the aria would grow. This would root the aria within the context of a story, but it should also be able to be performed as a stand-alone work – as it was at Hoxton Hall, and now here at Arcola.
THE BAREFOOT DANCER AND THE DEMON OF THE BELFRY
Our opera tells the story of how Beulah Durrant, an obscure Canadian-born musician, became Maud Allan, the popular Edwardian entertainer often referred to as the Salome Dancer, or Barefoot Dancer.
Maud Allan’s image was once a familiar one, adorning many a British postcard from the time with her voluptuous body, defiant eyes, and ‘scandalous’ beaded costume. Allan was one of a handful of female dancers who, between 1902 and 1914, transformed dance as an art form, bringing it to wider prominence both in Europe and the world. Taking inspiration from antiquity, she fashioned a unique choreography that prized expression above technique, and drew motion and emotion from music. Her ‘sensational’ performances were an assault on Victorian sensibilities and they generated a great deal of newspaper copy. At the height of her career she enjoyed immense popularity, earning an unprecedented 250 pounds a week at the Palace Theatre and touring all five continents with her musicians. Yet Allan is one of the less-remembered figures from this time— surprising, given that her story is singular and fascinating. She was a highly educated, musically accomplished, and wildly successful lesbian artist who swam against the oppressive cultural tide of pre-war Britain, all the while carrying a macabre secret that would eventually be her undoing; that her brother had been convicted and subsequently hanged for the horrific murders of 2 young women in the church where he worked as assistant Sunday school director in San Fransisco. The press branded her brother “The Demon of the Belfry,” blackening her name by association.
About the Music…
That Maud Allan was an accomplished musician long before she became a dancer, resonated deeply with me and would inform my approach. Rhythm would play an important role in the soundscape. The score would hint at Maud’s formative years; her classical piano roots. But her sophistication as a woman – ahead of her time – invited another angle: the music would push beyond established genre boundaries. It would not sit in any one place for too long, but develop, absorbing ideas along its way, all the while teasing the listener with hints of Indian classical, Middle Eastern scales, shades of Chopin; sumptuous jazz harmonies and echoes of Celtic folk. Each of these musical strands can be read as a literal reflection of the sounds and cultures that would inspire the travelling and dancing Maud. But for me they also represent an urgency in Maud, to express her multidimensional self; her contradictions and those conflicting ideas she grappled with in a soul-searching, existential exploration. Maud wasn’t concerned with following traditions, and – whether knowingly or not – her curiosity lead her to break boundaries and create new forms.
What has been rewarding for both Dina and I, was discovering a female artist who was so avant- garde; singularly driven and unapologetic of her artistry that she scandalised Edwardian Britain, leading her to be silenced by the patriarchy and politics of the era.
Having discovered Maud and her story, we both felt an urgency to bring her back into focus – a century later – through our aria.
On a personal note, it feels pertinent to be part of Mosaic at Grimeborn. My first foray into the opera world (all those years ago…) was only made possible because David and the Baylis Programme were casting the net wider, and searching for “new voices” to tell more diverse stories. How wonderful to be part of a collective that is doing likewise.