Wales Arts Review sits down with the creative team behind Natasha, artist and writer Jane Fox and composer Ashley John Long, to guide us through the creation of a modern opera in fifteen sections linked by themes exploring modern slavery, human trafficking and the sex trade.
Natasha was inspired by the acclaimed Mexican journalist-campaigner Lydia Cacho and her award winning book SLAVERY INC: The Untold Story of International Sex Trafficking. She is an UNESCO World Press Freedom Hero and received the PEN International Writer of Courage Prize 2010. Cacho dedicated her book:
To my brothers Oscar, Jose and Alfredo, who have shown that masculinity can be loving, pro-equality and non-violent.
Between 2015 – 2018 Asking4It Productions commissioned and produced three sections of Natasha: Shelter in 2015, and Peacekeeping and The Filmmaker and The Organ Trader in 2018. Each of the three opera scores have been composed by Ashley John Long.
Natasha: A Composer’s Perspective – Ashley John Long
How does one compose an opera in which the libretto is non-linear, and one in which dramatic action is, at times, totally absent? This was the first question I asked myself when approaching composing for this project. Reading through the entirety of Natasha, I began to get a sense of interconnected themes which are not necessarily articulated as such, but nonetheless produce a set of consistent emotional responses. It is these responses which form the basis of the musical material that connects the three resulting pieces: Peacekeeping, The Film Maker and the Organ Trader and Shelter. In spite of the experimental nature of the three works, the compositional techniques used to create them are actually relatively conventional, taking a core set of musical materials and developing them extensively. Whilst each piece received a radically different musical treatment, their core materials are nonetheless intrinsically linked.
A central concept which is present in all of the pieces is one of ‘fixed versus free’. Whilst many of my compositions contain sections in which performers may have more control over the direction of the piece than would be typical, in these three pieces they become a central structural device. As a central theme within Natasha is one of power and entrapment, performers are requested to improvise within strict guidelines as a way of reflecting this. However, whilst they are allowed a degree of freedom but are always drawn back into the overall structure embodied by the characters whose musical material is more fixed.
Each work also takes as it’s starting point a seven note row; the ‘Natasha’ theme, which is present in various guises within each of the pieces. The row also covers a musical span of a 7th (E-D).
The number seven is central to the trio of works and has various meanings which relate to the libretto as a whole. To Jane, ‘Natasha’ is a metaphor. She is everyone and no-one, not an individual and is therefore universal and representative of something that connects us all. In numerology, seven is the seeker of truth, in Christianity it represents the days of creation and of deadly sins. In Judaism its is the number of days of mourning and in Islam it is the number of heavens, and the number of hells. There are seven continents and seven colours in the rainbow. Seven is the most common number of significant individual events within each of these pieces and every element of their structure is based on the number seven.
The row is heard in its complete form at the opening and closing of Peacekeeping, throughout FM/OT and in its final, developed form as a music box tune in Shelter. Each work also contains a chorale, a reflection of humanity coming together in the most difficult of circumstances. The pieces are, in a sense, modular. As no linear narrative takes place of the course of the three works, they can be performed individually or paired together as wished. When performed in their entirety however, they should be performed thus: Peacekeeping – The Film Maker And The Organ Trader – Shelter.
SHELTER (40 mins)
Asking4It Productions produced Shelter at the RWCMD in 2015. This was a research and development performance funded by the Arts Council of Wales. The score is part-graphic which contains sections allowing for improvisation by both the vocalists and instrumentalists. The vocal performers must refer to the score during the performance which means they are not directly addressing the audience.
This lends to an intense, stifling atmosphere with the three operatic performers locked-in on themselves.
Shelter is a psycho-chamber opera for three opera performers, cello and double-bass. It simultaneously explores a place of safety (a rescue sanctuary) and another kind of shelter, whereby an eleven year old child is married to a seventy-two year old man. They live alongside other such couples tucked away in a hidden community.
Shelter is an intimate sensory opera exploring shifting dynamics between parent and child; husband and wife; captor and captive, an exploration of complex ambivalence and affection. Two females explore fractured stages of a life. They evoke innocence, hope, and rage at their dependency suggestive of Stockholm Syndrome where boundaries are blurred and attachment to the captor is present.
Ashley John Long
Whilst this piece is intended to be the last of the three pieces when they are performed together, it was actually the first to be composed. As such, much of the musical material used in this piece is used to form the basis of the other two. Shelter encompasses a wide range of musical material; plain chant, renaissance polyphony, serialism, as well as more straightforward post-romantic writing alongside scenarios which are much freer. Rather than ask the musicians to improvise, I constructed a set of mobiles in which the performers are given a set of materials that they must constantly move between, rather like shuffling a pack of cards; each time it is shuffled the outcome is different but it is still identifiably a pack of cards.
As Shelter is set somewhere in the mind and not in reality, these mobiles occur at various points in the work and serve as a way of transitioning between recollections, or as a way of distorting reality when it becomes too much to bear. Each character has a musical representation which directly relates to their character traits and statuses. The two girls have material which can easily be disrupted or overpowered by the instrumentalists and male vocalist. The male character by complete contrast, has a very definite melodic line throughout which is strongly accompanied in the traditional sense by the instrumentalists. A sense of disembodiment also pervades the work and is furthered by using recordings of the performers voices which occur at various points throughout either to provide textural interest or enhance the sense of disassociation.
This work presented something of a departure for me. I had previously used mobiles and other methods of graphic scoring to present more loosely composed scenario’s to my own groups in Jazz and improvised music, but never before in my ‘classical’ music. Thus in the piece I have explored methods in which relative freedom can be achieved whilst remains rigorously structured. The result of this was to present a score in which the visual elements directly inform the nature of the music, as can be seen in the score extract. The efforts of the performers when approaching these challenges were remarkable indeed and I remain very grateful to them.
This commission was supported by a Ty Cerdd New Music Award 2017/18 and rehearsed over 3 days at Wales Millennium Centre. Peacekeeping, chamber opera-theatre is a collection of four arias which are accompanied with four instrumentalists (oboe, percussion, cello and harp).
A libretto comprised of four arias is uncommon. I was aiming for an immediate emotional resonance with each of the four vocalists as different from a developing narrative structure. I think narratives can be accessed by creating spaces within the piece. I studied sculpture and make abstract work with particular interest in the fragment and see connections between sculptural forms and these operas.
The concept of the fragment allows us to conjure up disjointed narratives and complete them with meaningful allusions. The viewer is challenged to make his own independent, intuitive contribution to the dialogue with the artwork. The fragment is disruptive and can question and transcend limitations of traditional narratives. It is an opportunity to question what we believe to be the case, and perhaps, it gives a voice to something greater than itself. I regard the four arias in Peacekeeping as fragments and offer audiences freedom spaces to explore ideas in the work. There are similarities also with the fractured layers of Shelter.
The Peacekeeping libretto evolved around a peacekeeping soldier/marine. The soldier explores his ideas of women at home and abroad while on peacekeeping duties. Governmental brothels for soldiers are common. This stripped-back opera performed simply questions the nature of global misogyny. Has the world ever had gender equality? Is equality ever possible while men pay women for sex? How is empowerment confused with choice, opportunity, education?
Our marine, performed by soprano Laura Curry, wears an emblematic blue beret, voluptuous Aunty Samantha t-shirt and urban camouflage trousers. The aria bemoans the impossibility of connection with women (apart from between the genitals). The marine realises he is violent and women have been injured and died in the brothels. The aria continues that female marines can only survive if they are as brutal as the men.
Circling the marine are three other characters: a woman, politician and priest.
The woman expresses her gratitude because she is married to a good man, a teacher. However, she still has doubts about her husband and hopes her sons will grow into respectful men. Protected within marriage she feels objectified by the gaze of other men. She prays for being a lucky woman and recognises the plight of women in different situations.
The marine and the woman are polarised. Although the marine experiences brief insight when he realises he’s been violent he reverts to his earlier position of regarding overseas women as alien and there to be used. Some sex workers would like to marry soldiers but it rarely happens.
The politician is unique in Peacekeeping because his aria is shared with all four opera performers who within strictly notated material have a degree of freedom with this section, which is written as a mobile. This frantic, bizarre interlude sees the eight performers in unusual communication. The politician is making arrangements for state provided brothels for soldiers Rest and Recuperation (R&R). He is importing women because indigenous women are protected for breeding and peacekeepers are somewhat prevented from contaminating the host gene pool.
The priest relishes working for the US marines endorsing male supremacy. His performance is parody, fire and brimstone and god damn any woman who puts a foot out of line. Whilst the four arias are interconnected, the four performers stare ahead each enclosed in their own space and perspective. They do not physically communicate with each other and in-turn perform a personal testimony before a tribunal, ie the audience.
Non-geographical Peacekeeping works as a symbol for places with similar arrangements for importing women for soldiers.
Ashley John Long
Peacekeeping, the most recent work explores the central themes outlined above much more explicitly than either of the other pieces. In fact, when performed together, there is gradual diminution of specificity throughout the three pieces, the idea being that no matter how harrowing the circumstances one can find themselves in, over time one will become desensitised to it and it becomes the norm. The general trend throughout the work is one of transformation: consonance to dissonance, rigour to freedom and vice versa.
Each of the characters is given a distinct set of musical materials which are intended to reflect their various character traits and situations. As none of the characters have a specific setting geographically or otherwise, these reflections remain illusory rather than explicit.
The Soldier, a self-assured part which also contains transitory emotion conflicts is set within a more expansive musical discourse. Featuring a more traditionally scored melody and accompaniment-type setting than anywhere else in the three works. The music itself ranges from folk song to permutational serialism charting the course of the character’s emotional states. The part is strictly notated, it’s meaning sometimes simple and direct, at others oblique. It concludes with air of mock-triumph; a nod to more conventional song forms in its melodic content whilst the ensemble gradually breaks down around it.
The next section, Woman, is constructed of a set of interlocking musical cycles. Small fragments of musical material are cycled by each instrument so that the accompaniment is constantly varied but nonetheless always part of the same thing. In many ways, this is a metaphor for routine and imprisonment as the vocalist’s melodic line floats freely on top; it is dislocated, but never able to escape, remaining always within the confines that are set up by the instrumentalists. Gradually, the music fades to just the voice and the ostinato which begins the section; she ends her day as she begins it, a situation that will never change.
The Politician, a small but explosive section, is a literal representation of polemic and its associated problems. Whilst each vocalist and instrumentalist is given a dense, urgent and extensive musical line (which happen concurrently but which are not coordinated) one voice prevails over the chaos, that of the politician. A climax of activity gives way to the same type of choral interlude that is found in Shelter before the musical material of The Priest begins. The music itself is a pastiche of a Baroque aria which gradually twists into a much darker, nightmarish vision of itself before dissolving altogether, commensurate with the sense of decay imbued in the libretto. The work ends in the same way it began, with the ‘Natasha theme’ but altered in timbre being played this time by the harp where first it was played by Vibraphone. A reflection in itself of the ritualism and entrapment; when any change occurs, in this situations it can only ever be incremental.
This commission was funded by a crowd funding campaign in 2016 and rehearsed over 3.5 days at the Wales Millennium Centre. This opera for three voices explores the lucrative world of snuff pornography and sale of human organs. It is situated in a film studio where a destitute girl is buggered and murdered early in the opera. The protagonists proceed to toast their liaison and develop business plans including working with reputable surgeons and teaching hospitals. Historically Resurrectionists or body-snatchers, dug-up recently buried bodies and sold them to anatomy schools and murdered poor people to maintain their supply to the hospitals.
Additionally there is a slow developing undercurrent of cannibalism throughout the opera. People are a lucrative commodity to be sold, reused alive or dead – as an intact body or in parts.
I decided to depict the assault and murder and I cast a female because of the disproportionate nature of gender-based violence. Direction was clinical and aimed to depict regularity and familiar practice employed by the filmmaker and the snuffer – organ trader. The young woman was dispatched early in the opera. The extended musical interludes offer opportunities to contemplate the brutality and to mourn the death of people through such circumstances. Following the murder, a spotlight is left on the murdered girl for the duration of the opera. This provides contrast as the protagonists eat, and pour over photographs of the act, discuss business plans and their lucrative connections with surgeons and increasing wealth. According to the United Nations there are 800 million hungry people globally in 2016.The opera opens,
Filmmaker: “We pick these girls up for the price of a slice of bread”
Girl: “I’m picked up for the price of a slice of bread”
Ashley John Long
The libretto for this act is extremely short, running to something like two and a half pages. As Jane had requested a work of half an hours duration, my initial response was to consider where the piece should be set. We had discussed the possibility of staging the pieces outside of more conventional settings and as such, I had conceived FM/OT as being set in an industrial space; something like a warehouse with their sense of vast, shadowy structures. As the world of snuff films is a distinctly underground activity, the setting of a warehouse or similar seemed somewhat appropriate.
This accounts for the sheer amount of music (nearly ten minutes) before any action occurs. I had conceived of the audience being mobile and the setting being more akin to an art installation; the audience walking around whilst the score is playing before finally happening upon the situation of the two men and the girl, intensifying the sense of voyeurism the libretto suggests. The score is also mixed to be heard in a vast space so that sounds would blur into one another and alter as the audience move around. The score itself is entirely electronic and takes as it sound sources: three and half octaves of my own voice, recordings of my own heart beat and lung sounds, as well as replications of the frequencies of the human central nervous system. These are transformed through a variety of process to arrive at their final form.
‘Fixed versus free’ is again a central conceit as the vocalists are also given more freedom here than in any other part of the thee pieces whilst the accompaniment never alters. The two male characters are given a notation which is suggestive of pitch and rhythm so that the performers themselves can dictate the progression of the piece between them, whilst the part of the girl is strictly notated. As the whole piece is essentially about the developing relationship between two men who have a callous disregard for their prey, the freedom afforded to the men in constant with the strictures of the female is particularly apt.
You can find out more about Asking4It Productions here
And more about Ty Cerdd here