by Anne Sofie Grindstrand, Marketing and Communications Assistant

13 November 2020 

We 'Meet the Creators' ahead of the premiere next week of our contemporary opera project 12:42 - a unique film documenting the collaborative creative process of producing brand new operas under coronavirus lockdown conditions. Produced almost entirely in quarantine, the documentary follows the ambitious journey of 42 creative people – comprising the National Opera Studio’s Young Artist singers and repetiteurs, in close collaboration with some of today’s most exciting composers and librettists from around the world — to create eleven new opera arias entirely through online work and digital media.

We caught up with composer Alex Ho about his new work Above the White Island which, in collaboration with 2019/20 Young Artist Shengzhi Ren and librettist Theophilus Kwek, will be premiered on the National Opera Studio’s YouTube channel alongside the documentary. Along with filmed performances of each aria, the 12:42 documentary will première at 7.00pm GMT on OperaVision on 17 November HERE.

 

What musical ideas came to mind when you first met with Shengzhi and Theophilus? 

It is always exciting to write for specific performers and meeting Shengzhi was a crucial part of the creative process. We met back in March (on a horribly rainy evening) and had a fascinating conversation about lots of things including what music we liked and why, as well as our different relationships with Chinese culture. We began talking about Chinese folk music, a genre that we both have had contact with, and as part of this, Shengzhi sang a snippet of a folk song there and then. It was a beautiful moment and seemed to capture the essence of the conversation we had been having - I was taken aback especially by the sense of care and tenderness in Shengzhi's singing that was being drawn out by this folk song.

As Theo is based in Singapore, we had an online conversation afterwards between the three of us. We continued the discussion about Chinese identity and talked particularly about how our heritage can represent a place of sanctuary and comfort. It was this idea that seemed to bring our experiences together, despite each of us having quite different relationships with Chinese culture, and so became the core of our aria, Above the White Island.

 

Is it important to you as a composer to relate to the character you're writing for?

Absolutely. On top of this, it is equally important to understand how the singer relates to the character as ultimately it is them who will bring the character to life. Theo had devised and written a brilliant text that blurred the boundaries between Shengzhi and the character portrayed which made my job easier and more interesting! Our conversations also played a big role in allowing me to identify and explore the various layers of the text and in this sense, the aria composed was the result of a deep collaboration between Shengzhi, Theo, and myself. I wanted therefore to write the music in a way that gave space to each of our voices and I hope listeners can hear this.

 

Your past work often explores both social and cultural issues, what were your initial feelings when you started creating the music?

My initial feeling on this project was that I wanted to create a piece that resonated deeply with not only myself, but also Shengzhi and Theo. Chinese identity was an issue that we all have quite strong opinions on and it was unsurprising that this was where our conversations led. Having said that, I wanted to make sure that we were not homogenising our experiences as we have very different cultural upbringings being brought up in the UK, China, and Singapore respectively and so I also felt wary strangely enough! In the UK, there are many problematic stereotypes of what 'Chinese' means both socially and musically, and I hope this project sheds light on a different image of what Chinese experience can be.

  

What are some of the lessons and feelings you would like people to take away after hearing the aria?

Without prescribing too much, I'd encourage listeners to reflect on what a sense of belonging means. I'll leave it at that!

 

You are currently studying for a doctorate at RCM, what is next for you?

I'm currently working on commissions from BBC Radio 3, Riot Ensemble, and Nevis Ensemble. I'm excited that they are all shaping up to be very different projects spanning a reflection on lockdown, a game of chess, and audience participation - stay tuned!