Just say 'Yes': Wallen and Greer's new opera
British composer Errollyn Wallen and American playwright Bonnie Greer tell Time Out about their collaboration on the opera 'Yes'
'It all begins in my pyjamas,' announces Errollyn Wallen, surveying the pleasing sight of a busy rehearsal space festooned with suitcases and singers. The British composer then glamorously swans into the room in a leopard-skin fur coat, her generous curly hair carefully braided in different shades, and at her heels, three young men bearing biscuits, who turn out to be her Trinity composition students.
Where Wallen, also wearing sparkly gold mascara, appears as if she has arrived for a film premiere rather than the rehearsal of her latest opera (her eleventh), by contrast, her librettist Bonnie Greer, all in black, arrives quietly and apologetically. Modest and charming, the American playwright (and now British citizen) is perhaps most recognisable from her appearances on BBC's 'Newsnight Review' - it was she who instigated the project that is now in preparation.
The pair have collaborated on 'Yes', which stars Greer (in a non-singing narrator role) and opens at the Linbury Studio Theatre on Tuesday. For the librettist it all began in October 2009 when she was asked to appear on the BBC's 'Question Time' programme in which the far-right British National Party politician Nick Griffin was also to be a guest. It was a controversial decision - the clash between giving freedom of speech to an elected politician (he was an MEP) and giving publicity to someone of extreme and divisive beliefs. For Greer, however, as a black, left-wing intellectual, the opportunity to expose the ludicrous belief system underpinning his racist views was too tempting and so she said 'yes'.
Immediately, she found herself at the centre of a maelstrom, accused by some of giving credibility to the BNP and its policies, which include halting immigration. Seated next to Griffin, she acquitted herself admirably, rebuffing his attempts at camaraderie and refuting his curious notions of a pure white British race and other apocrypha. Meanwhile, she retained enough sang froid for him to give her his business card afterwards. The encounter, however, still has repercussions. 'I've lost some friends for sure; people are still angry about it,' reflects Greer with a shrug. 'But I made a lot more; people still stop me on the street, especially now when they know we're doing this.'
Rather than recreating the 'Question Time' panel, the opera is set in the week leading up to the live broadcast and ends just as the programme is about to air - avoiding the question as to whether it will give Griffin even more publicity. The Tottenham-raised Wallen explains: 'He is never mentioned, but there is a character who is far right.' She and Greer, though, have been keen not to caricature such views - perhaps demonstrated by the refrain 'This country is baking in its own shit', which is set as an almost elegiac chorus. 'In essence,' she continues, 'the piece is a snapshot of who Britain is, using the events of 2009 as a fulcrum to examine who we are.' Greer chips in, adding, 'It is about men more than anything else.'
The work began somewhat naively as a play. 'I walked into the opera house in January 2010, two months after “Question Time”, because I just thought what had happened to me was an opera,' explains Greer. 'It is about an event as experienced by me, but also, more importantly, it's about the landscape of a country in which I am an immigrant and felt very much like an incomer caught up in it all.
I came in to this from the theatre and wrote a play because that is all I knew. But ROH2 allowed me to find my voice and to understand what had to be done - that is the justification of the Royal Opera House being there, because there is a level at which only opera can express the human condition - no other form can do it.'
The pair didn't know each other before they were introduced last year by director John Lloyd-Davies (head of Opera Development at the Royal Opera House). He matched them up, but not because they are both black, for, as he reveals, it is not a black story. 'The piece hasn't got a message unless the title means “engage”,' he says. 'What it is trying to do is understand why a right-thinking person in the East End might be angry or frightened.' And it is not just the story, he admires. 'One of the interesting aspects from an artistic point of view is the structure of it; the way it tries to tell a story is completely different to almost all of the operatic repertoire. The thing is that there isn't a single story, there are about 20. And Errollyn has composed it in a very interesting way; short scenes that end abruptly - so it is much more like “24” or “The Wire”. I think its structure represents a leap forward for opera.'
At the core of the work is a quote from philosopher John Stuart Mill: 'The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth.' This is read out by Greer, her Chicago drawl adding an engaging film noir inflection. She then gives it a modern interpretation: 'If we don't get it out there, we can't clean it up.'
And Griffin's business card - did she keep it? 'I sure did,' she smiles. 'I think I am going to auction it for some cause they might not be interested in; probably for gay activism.'
'Yes' runs at the Linbury Studio Theatre (Royal Opera House) Tue Nov 22-26, 2011. www.roh.org.uk