Following two very successful performances at Brighton and Norfolk & Norwich Festivals, the cast of The Opera Group’s Bow Down are currently enjoying a bit of respite before joining us at the Village Underground for their Summer Festival performance on Wednesday 13 June. We took the opportunity to ask them to share a few of their experiences so far, and first up we have flautist Rehana Browne. Enjoy!
With recent performances at the Brighton and Norfolk & Norwich Festivals described as “intense and committed” and “phenomenal…raw, eerie and atmospheric”, The Opera Group’s production of Bow Down by Sir Harrison Birtwistle at Spitalfields Music’s Summer Festival on 13 June is not to be missed.
The Opera Group Perform Bow Down by Harrison Birtwistle at the Brighton Festival 17 May 2012
Bow Down is an improvised music theatre piece composed in 1977 by Sir Harrison Birtwistle (music) and Tony Harrison (libretto). It is a disturbing tale of sibling rivalry, based on the folk ballad of the “Two Sisters” and I feel privileged to be one of the seven cast members who have been performing this unique and powerful work during the summer. One of Birtwistle’s artistic affinities is for Paul Klee who described his drawing method as “taking a line for a walk” and I feel that this perfectly describes our four-week rehearsal process as through group improvisation, we have experimented with various melodic and physical ideas presented in the score, to see what we is created as a result.
We were highly fortunate to have the opportunity to work with Sir Harrison Birtwistle himself in the first rehearsal and his aversion to any one of the seven performers specialising in a particular skill meant that all seven cast members were consigned to be in constant state of flux throughout the project; playing instruments, singing, dancing and acting to create the inter-dependent musical and dramatic elements which give Bow Down its sense of cubism. It is not like a play or opera where one or other of the two elements are subsidiary to the other, rather both are vital and cannot exist alone. The hybrid of actor and musician is clear in directions such as “instrumental scream” and the way in which the music often reflects the spoken text. Sir Harrison also explained that the score should not be interpreted as a direct representation of the piece, it was actually produced post-premiere and so it should instead serve as the foundation for our fresh interpretation of the piece. He told us that “if you do something right, everything is right. If you do something wrong, everything is wrong. You can do anything as long as you can justify it.” This means that every performance is slightly different and also lays a significant amount responsibility on each individual performer, who in turn must merge into an ensemble striving for the common goal of telling the gripping tale of the “Two Sisters”.
[Birtwistle] told us that “if you do something right, everything is right. If you do something wrong, everything is wrong. You can do anything as long as you can justify it.”
Like a lot of Birtwistle’s work, the score presents structures which are ritualistic and cyclic, using repeated melodic and rhythmic motives and spoken refrains. However, this repetitive element (reflected in the unconventionally notated score by symbols such as mobile repeats) is juxtaposed with a system of constant development and space for improvisation (seen, for example, in the three-line staves). Birtwistle once described his music as “a sort of ostinato [which] is static and yet…is developing like a wedge” and it is this combination of the rational rituals and the irrational predictability which allows the piece to be cohesive yet also constantly developing.
Coming from background of predominately classical music training, I have found working on Bow Down hugely exciting and liberating for so many reasons. I have particularly enjoyed the opportunity to explore different means communication besides playing the flute and I have also found the link between Bow Down and Japanese Noh theatre and medieval music fascinating.
Our first performances of Bow Down were held in unusual venues which enhanced the macabre feel of the work; an abandoned market in Brighton and a fire-lit forest in Norwich and our performances in Spitalfields will be at the Village Underground, an equally apt performance space to convey the gritty and controversial tale. The Telegraph Opera described the production as “imaginatively staged…expertly performed” and it was awarded a coveted Argus Angel award for artistic excellence by the Brighton Festival. I feel that Bow Down shows Birtwistle to be a crucial perpetrator of hugely meaningful and expressive works of art in which all forms of art; music, acting and dance, work together to brilliant effect. We are all really looking forward to bringing the production to a London audience in Spitalfields on 13 June and then to the Latitude Festival on 12-15 July as part of our nationwide tour. Hope to see you there!
Bow Down Cast Member
Wednesday 13 June, 6.30pm & 8.30pm
Village Underground, EC2A 3PQ
Book your tickets now!