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Anon - Welsh National Opera

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by dpm (subscribe)
dpm is a Birmingham-based freelancer with experience of arts and lifestyle features.
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How Manon became Anon
We're all sitting in a basement studio huddled round a piano and a table. Three women are singing their hearts out and there is hardly pause for breath.

As the music and singing reaches its climax there is a sudden silence broken only when composer Errollyn Wallen lets out a sigh and says: "Phew, that was intense."

'That' is Errollyn's latest opera Anon, an ambitious project which has seen her working with Welsh National Opera to create a new work inspired by the Puccini opera Manon Lescaut. Based on the 18th century book by Abbé Prévost, Manon Lescaut tells the story of a woman whose search for love leads her to break the strict moral codes of her time – with disastrous results. The opera is being performed by WNO as part of their spring season – and it has inspired this new work.

Errollyn Wallen, WNO, Anon, Welsh National Opera, Manon Lescaut
Errollyn Wallen in rehearsals for WNO's Anon


WNO Youth and Community director Rhian Hutchings explains how Manon evolved into Anon: "We took the subject matter from the original opera Manon," she says. "Then, together with Errollyn, we pulled that story apart and looked at how we could explore its subject matter in the present day. It is the story of a woman who makes a decision, in this case to go off with a man, and the huge consequences it has for her life – and her death."

The team were also working with Birmingham-based South Asian arts organisation Sampad who immediately saw its relevance. "We met with Piali Ray, director of Sampad, and she said 'that sounds like a contemporary Indian story' and that was when we realised how powerful it would be today," adds Rhian.

Working together with Sampad, Rhian and Errollyn held a number of workshops with young women in and around Birmingham, visiting Tipton Sports Academy and Newman University.

"We wanted a contemporary up-to-date story and when we spoke to these young women we realised that the story was just that," says Rhian. "They were talking about how you make a decision to do something and how it impacts on your whole life. But we also realised from these discussions that the subject took on a much wider element than simply being an Asian story – this was a story for all young women whatever their background."

The group also interviewed a group of Birmingham-based female sex workers and then created the basis of a story.

"Much of the text of the opera is actually the words spoken by some of these women – they are real stories," says Rhian. "What Errollyn has done is bring them all together into one story. And it is a very powerful story. I'm really interested to see how audiences will react to it as we haven't shied away from it. What we want to have is engagement and discussion with a lot of young adults about a very contemporary issue and this is what opera is about. Opera is able to approach these subjects with a kind of poetry but it makes it no less hard-hitting.

"And the woman Manon becomes nameless. We were travelling back from Birmingham to London after one of the workshops and we were talking about having all these different stories in the opera and whether the stories would merge and the audience should be uncertain of who was saying what at certain times," recalls Rhian. "I said 'it's almost like they become anonymous voices' and Errollyn just went 'That's it, the name, Anon'. It just fitted perfectly."

Errollyn, who received an MBE for services to music in 2007 and picked up the Ivor Novello Award for Classical Music in 2013, admits that she wasn't immediately attracted to the story of Manon.

"Initially I was reluctant," says Errollyn. "In fact I wasn't sure about the idea and didn't know what I could do with it. I read the novel and it struck me that Manon doesn't get to even speak. The brief from this project was to write an opera about the exploitation of young women across the world. The more I spoke to people, including the other women involved in the opera, I realised we all had stories to tell. Every day you read in the news about women being trafficked or a woman being abducted or stories of 'honour killings', female genital mutilation, and on and on. I realised how relevant our opera is. Talking to young women in Birmingham confirmed that."

Errollyn continues: "What really helped me develop the story was when we did some workshops with Tipton Academy and Newman College. I was presenting scenes and dilemmas from Manon Lescaut and then asking them 'what would you do?' It was basically story-telling and they would come back in twos and threes and they would say 'we would do this or this'. And it was just the vivid way they told me – it just got me realising that there was a lot in that original story.

"By setting these dilemmas and scenes in modern times we were exploring each person's culture because that influenced what they would do. So we looked at what happens to a young teenager who runs away from different cultures and different religions – and what would happen. I realised that question could carry on into the libretto. The question 'what would you do?' had to be at the heart of it."

WNO, Welsh National Opera, Anon, Manon
Singers Claire Wild and Joanna Foote in rehearsals


Speaking to female sex workers in Birmingham brought another element to the story.

"We were very lucky because they were anonymous and they could be very open and honest with us," recalls Errollyn. "There were three of them and they were all bright women but they looked ill and tired. They all came from families where for generations there had been different types of abuse, different types of neglect. You saw that their options were limited. They had all left school early, didn't really know where they were going and they had slipped into this world due to a manipulative older man – all of them. Then they somehow got into drugs, it was actually crack which got them onto the streets, and were caught in a cycle they couldn't get out of. But then their parents were in these cycles too."

After all these workshops and discussions Errollyn had a rich collection of stories and experiences to condense into a 40 minute opera: "From all of this the libretto and opera kind of wrote itself really. Once I found the language of the piece, odd lines and images would come to me. The piece is lots of very short scenes put together but it does have one clear story which starts and ends in the same place. I decided I wanted really stripped back text which would be very sparse and not descriptive at all. So you could just present the scenes. It is more about showing situations. Once I set the words to music that sparseness became a sea of emotion, atmosphere, tension and drama. That is what music does to words".

Unlike the original novel in which Manon is a silent victim of circumstances, surrounding by men who tell her story for her, in Anon there are only women's voices – the three sopranos Meeta Raval, Claire Wild and Joanna Foote and two female actors.

"We've turned the novel on its head and we've given Manon a character," says Errollyn. "The novel was hugely popular at the time but it is written from the male perspective – our opera looks at situations from the female perspective."

Errollyn worked collaboratively with director Wils Wilson, music director Stuart Wild and the three singers and actors in a series of workshops through the late summer and autumn.

Errollyn continues: "At the first workshops in some cases I just had the libretto for some scenes and hadn't written the music for them. For some of it we would improvise the drama and that really helped me – I got to keep that picture in my mind. Working with the performers in a workshop setting means you can go home and see them in your mind's eye and then you can go back to the workshop and revisit it. For me it is all in the voice. You should still be able to experience everything without lights and scenery. Then the opera works. And the first voice workshops really helped because every singer is different. The word 'soprano' doesn't really mean anything as every voice has different colours, different textures and different timbres. All three of our sopranos are very different."

Anon, Welsh National Opera, mac, Errollyn Wallen
Amanda Stoodley and Wils Wilson in rehearsals for Anon


When Anon is staged in Birmingham Errollyn is planning to share it with the girls and women who helped her create it: "I was so inspired by them. They just helped me. I remember talking to the Tipton girls and I thought 'I just have to do this' and suddenly it was easy. And one of the things we all found interesting, including the women we were talking to at the beginning, was that they didn't know opera could do this. That it could tell a story like this, something from the real world today."

Which is also what attracted the singers to the project.

"This opera is quite ground-breaking because it's all women – women singers and a woman composer," says Meeta Raval. "And it is covering ground-breaking subjects. It will really make audiences think."

Joanne Foote says it is amazing how far Anon has come from Manon: "In verismo opera such as Manon you often tend to find that the women are very two dimensional characters. They run off with a man and then they die of consumption. But here the women have so much more to them."

And Claire Wild adds: "What Errollyn has done is to give Manon a voice."

Now the project looks set to ask other young women and men for their responses to the story.

"We will be performing Anon in Birmingham, Wolverhampton, Cardiff and Bristol," says WNO Youth and Community producer Åsa Malmsten. "It will be for audiences of people aged 16 plus and we would like to show it in colleges to some invited audiences but also at venues like the Mac in Birmingham to the general public. Our aim with Anon is to raise awareness of issues which generally remain hidden. And we want to provoke discussion about them. Our aim is to hold question and answer sessions at the end of each performance to look at some of the issues that have been raised. It would be great if some of the people in those audiences are also encouraged to come along to see WNO perform Manon Lescaut as well but our main focus here is to bring that story into the modern day and to examine the many issues around the exploitation of women today."

Anon is performed at Llanover Hall Arts Centre in Cardiff (029 2030 4400) on March 14, Wickham Theatre in Bristol (029 2030 4400) on March 17, Gloucester Guildhall (029 2030 4400) on March 18, Newhampton Arts Centre in Wolverhampton (01902 572090) on March 25 and mac in Birmingham (0121 446 3232) on March 26.

For more information see www.wno.org.uk/anon

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Why? Because it brings opera right up to date
When: Wednesday 26 March at 4pm and 7pm
Phone: 029 2063 5000
Where: mac, Birmingham
Cost: £5
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