Fri | Jul 28, 2017

Unfinished opera about Nanny well received

Published:Wednesday | September 14, 2016 | 9:00 AMMichael Reckord

Praise poured down like Portland rain on three women associated with a still unfinished opera staged at the School of Music, Edna Manley College (EMC), on Friday night.

The praise came at least partly, because of the patriotism of the audience, though, ironically, none of the three women - Nanny of the Maroons, the opera's main character; the composer, Dr Shirley J. Thompson, and soprano Abigail Kelly, the work's soloist - is a "born Jamaican".

Still, Nanny was not only adopted by Jamaica, but made a National Hero, while both Thompson and Kelly, who were born and live in the United Kingdom, have Jamaican parents. Thompson's mother and Kelly's parents were in the audience on Friday, the latter having flown in for the show.

Thompson, perhaps Jamaica's most distinguished composer of modern classical music, is the first woman in Europe to have composed and conducted a symphony within the last 40 years. Her New Nation Rising: A 21st Century Symphony, which was performed and recorded by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, celebrates London's thousand-year history.

A reader in composition and performance at the University of Westminster, she has served for 20-plus years on several national arts institutions, including the London Arts Board, the Arts Council of Great Britain and the British Academy of Song Writers, Composers and Authors. The Evening Standard named her one of Britain's Top 100 Most Influential Black People from 2010 to the present.

Her "work-in-progress opera", Sacred Mountain: Incidents in the Life of Queen Nanny of the Maroons, debuted in the United Kingdom last year and was mounted here after a week of rehearsals at the EMC with students and faculty there and with Kelly, one of the UK's top sopranos, portraying Queen Nanny.

The School of Music head Roger Williams, and several lecturers, formed the orchestra, School of Dance head Kerry-Ann Henry choreographed the movement, and School of Drama head Pierre Lemaire assisted with the staging. All participated in the discussion, led by Thompson, which was held with the audience after the production ended.

Thompson asked for, and received, numerous suggestions about enlarging the 45-minute-long-opera and Williams told The Gleaner, that the EMC looked forward to producing the completed work in a year or two, if adequate funding could be obtained.

 

SIMPLE BEGINNING

 

The opera begins with a simple sound, the blowing of the abeng, but the music rapidly becomes "very complicated" (Thompson's own description) as the story of a short period in Nanny's life unfolds. With her powerful, flexible, emotive voice, Kelly showed her mastery of the score.

Nevertheless, the question arises about whether she (or any other single voice) should be given the entire score of the expanded opera. Another voice would add variety, and it - or many other singing characters - would provide scope for a more complex (and interesting) plot.

At the heart of the tale is a battle between Nanny's maroons and British soldiers who invade the maroon home in the Blue Mountains, but the battle itself is quickly glossed over for, as Thompson said, hers is a "psychological drama".

Ironically, though, Nanny uses the terrain and flora of the area to conquer the British, she also spends time battling elements of her environment. She constantly complains about the heat, mosquitoes and thirst.

Another element of the story - which is told mainly in song and with occasional narration and the projection of pictures onto a backdrop - is the treachery of one of Nanny's companions.

When the maroons are hungry, they survive because of some quick-sprouting and growing pumpkin seeds - an episode based on a well known Nanny legend. Thompson told the audience that her research included listening to West African music and a visit to Moore Town facilitated by cultural historian Vivian Crawford, himself a maroon.

Thompson said the music was meant to be "gritty", and "sometimes jagged", rather than beautiful, but it was occasionally lyrical, reflecting the beauty of the Blue Mountains. The story ends when, after the defeat of the British, life in the maroon village returns to normal.

But Nanny is left wondering when the next fight will be.