British opera singer creates work to reveal the humanity of enslaved ancestors | Opera

A leading British opera singer is developing a work based on the music of his enslaved ancestors in Barbados as a way of exploring complex historical events and highlighting forms of resistance.

Peter Brathwaite and the Royal Opera House (ROH) will bring Insurrection: A Work In Progress to audiences in March, inviting audience feedback that will shape the next stages of the opera.

Brathwaite, a baritone who has sung for the ROH, English National Opera, Opera North, English Touring Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour, draws on family history and historical research for his work.

Enslaved people were forced to live under draconian codes that denied them basic human rights. Brathwaite said those in power used the codes to target music “because they were very concerned that enslaved people were using music to send messages and incite rebellion and revolution. They wanted to exercise their power to control black culture.

But music cannot be suppressed, he said. “These folk traditions are really strong; they are about resistance and recalling past freedoms, but also about staking something that can be passed on to future generations.

Rehearsals for Insurrection took place at Toynbee Studios in London last August. Photo: Sama Kai

In 1816, enslaved people in Barbados rebelled, burning cane fields and destroying property. The rebellion lasted nearly two weeks before the colonial governor was able to restore order. By then the rioters had caused over £170,000 worth of property damage – around (£10.5m) today.

Their folk songs have survived as an oral tradition and are now part of the national curriculum in Barbados, Brathwaite said. “They tell us a lot about the enslaved communities in Barbados, so they are extremely important.”

Insurrection, his operatic work, will also explore the music used by enslavers as a “weapon of oppression”, including pro-slavery songs.

Brathwaite said in many communities, “enslaved people infused ostensibly English sounds with polyrhythms, melodic lines that were largely West African. Their tenacity and endurance allowed them to hold on to what was theirs and create something that was entirely new.

The uprising was “about scratching, trying to lay out how people fight for their rights and stand up for their humanity.”

The singer collaborated on the opera with director Ellen McDougall, writer Emily Aboud and music director Ishani Perinpanayagam. Cultural consultant is Barbadian pianist and composer Stefan Walcott.

During ‘semi-staged shares’ of work-in-progress at the ROH’s Linbury Theater in London, audiences – including schoolchildren and community groups – will be invited to take part in discussions around the themes of Insurrection.

“We’re trying to create a more collaborative approach,” said Sarah Crabtree, the theater’s creative producer. Exposing work-in-progress to the public was “scary but exciting,” she added.

Brathwaite said: “I would hate for an opera to be produced in a silo. We wanted something flexible and responsive to what people were thinking and the stories they wanted to see on stage. So a big part of that process is getting feedback.”

He said he hoped the final work would include the stories of his black ancestors Ado and Margaret. Addo was owned by John Brathwaite, one of the opera singer’s white ancestors and owner of four plantations in Barbados. Margaret was the daughter of another prominent white enslaver and an unknown enslaved African mother.

The couple, who had 11 children, were freed – hooray for “good behaviour” during the rebellion of 1816 – and acquired slaves themselves. “The story is quite hard to swallow, really, because I was looking for a character, this Roots-style Kunta Kinte character, a freedom fighter.

“But this story showed me that people resisted in different ways. And for Ado, it’s clearly about securing a future for his family. There are some hard truths in history, it’s not as black and white as we sometimes want it to be. It’s really very complicated.”

The trauma of slavery was “very deep, and we still see the consequences today,” Brathwaite said. “But generations upon generations of black families have erased a lot of that. My mother never knew anything about the history of slavery while I was growing up in Barbados in the 1950s. No one talks about it.

“I really want to find a way to use opera — making music and telling stories — to find justice and healing for all of us.”

Insurrection: A work in progress is in Linbury theater in central London from March 21-25, with tickets from £5.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *