Silver Birch - A People's Opera

I am currently working on a new commission for Garsington Opera called Silver Birch, a ‘people’s opera’ to be performed by six professional singers, 150 local people aged 8 to 85 and an orchestra of 17 professionals and 20 young instrumentalists. The creative team includes Roxanna Panufnik (composer), Jessica Duchen (librettist), Rhiannon Newman-Brown (designer) and Douglas Boyd (conductor). The story is original, multifaceted and informed by some very personal research we've undertaken, involving interviews with members of the poet Siegfried Sassoon's family plus advisers from today's military and ex-military personnel, our principal consultant having served on the frontline in Iraq.

We have called it a ‘people’s opera’ as this seemed a suitably broader term than ‘community opera’. In 2012 we premiered RoadRage, a community opera composed by Orlando Gough with libretto by Richard Stilgoe. It was a wonderful success in the performance itself, its ability to bring a wide range of local people together and the remarkable journey I witnessed both of the performers as a group and of some individuals. It was performed largely by local non-professionals to an audience of their family and friends. With Silver Birch we want to achieve all of this as well as open it up to as broad an audience as possible from the age of 8 upwards. This work is placed at the heart of the company and we want to bring on board local people of all ages, giving everyone the opportunity to have a voice and engage with its themes, experiencing a real connection to the work.

To achieve this we did a series of devising workshops, led by Jessica (librettist) and myself on the theme of war and its impact on families as well as the significance of World War I. We worked with a range of groups and individuals across the local community including primary school children, secondary school students, an adult community choir, SEN students, military personnel and their families. We asked ‘What does World War I mean to you?’ which seemed to spark an immediate response from most. We then explored some of Siegfried Sassoon’s WWI poetry, asking for responses on both the poems and the type of person they imagine the poet to be. 

Sassoon was a military hero who subsequently wrote a famous declaration against the way WWI was being conducted. He had encountered a group of like-minded people at Garsington Manor during the early years of the 20th century; Garsington Manor was home to Garsington Opera from 1989 to 2010, so the relevance of Sassoon runs deep for us. We explored many other themes around war and ended each workshop by posing the question Jessica has been commissioned to write an opera in response to the themes of WWI. What would you like it to focus on?’

We came away from the sessions with a wealth of really passionate and interesting responses, some of which have helped to shape the backbone of the opera. Jessica has written a powerful libretto that incorporates many ideas that people came up with in our devising sessions. Roxanna has now begun composing the piece and I’m looking forward to hearing how it’s taking shape. 

In the meantime, through our Learning and Participation programme, we have established great links with local schools and community groups and we’ll be running in-depth residences in a number of areas. We collaborate with local partners and organisations, devising projects with groups who would never have considered attending an opera: these workshops can be a transformational experience for individuals in difficult circumstances. From these projects we will be recruiting people of all ages who are interested in taking part in Silver Birch alongside our professional soloists.

Composition will be completed in the autumn of 2016 and work with the cast and performers will be well underway prior to an intensive week of rehearsals before three performances during our 2017 season on the main stage of Garsington Opera.

Karen Gillingham is Learning and Participation Director at Garsington Opera
and will be the Creative Director of Silver Birch.