Real time opera
A new kind of opera starts its public life at the CAST in Doncaster next month, before opening at the Hackney Empire. it is called Clocks 1888: The Greener, and its creators are Brolly
Disregard reports that opera is an artform of the past. If it was ever relevant to contemporary life a new piece, Clocks 1888: The Greener, confirms it, and relevant to both the date in its title and the present. It is part of a long-term project by a small officeless company of two.
The title, admits Dominic Hingorani, might be impenetrable for some, but this opera has a lot to say. It is, he says, about time and the technology of clockwork; it’s about a historic period of social change; and it’s about integration and diversity, “greener” being Cockney slang for immigrant. And more.
With Rachana Jadhav, Hingorani is half of the production company, Brolly, which they set up in 2010 to create theatre that crossed conventional frameworks to address issues, particularly ones that confront teenagers, with their only real driving force being the story.
“The main thing is that we get out of any idea of what theatre is and what performance is, and break it down” says Jadhav. “The opera began with some postcards we made and handed out to see what people thought of the story, and took it on from there”.
Jadhav and Hingorani are an unconventional professional couple who have their separate private lives. He is an academic, a reader in theatre at the University of East London, who is also a writer and theatre director; she trained as an architect at Edinburgh University – at a drawing board rather than a computer - before doing a second degree in scenography at Central St Martin’s and has since worked for the National Theatre. They both hail from the north of England (Doncaster is Jadhav’s home town whose demography is as relevant for the storyline as the East End’s) where the cover-all accessory is the umbrella.
“We’d worked together before 2010 and it occurred to us both how absurd it was that when you think about a performance piece the last thing you put into your plan is the design” Hingorani says. “We didn’t think that was helpful to the creative process.”
So Brolly is a completely joint operation, with both acting as producers and directors of the show, and every aspect of design and script made in tandem. The idea was already formed when they brought in composer Mar- tin Ward early in the development so the score could fit the characters as they developed.
Their first project as Brolly was Guantanamo Boy, a dramatisation for stage of Anna Perera’s 2009 book about a 15-year-old Muslim boy from Rochdale, kidnapped and taken to Guantanamo. It was commissioned by Stratford Circus and after its pre- miere there went on to a sell-out tour in 2013.
The Greener is different, coming out of what the pair call their Brolly Fridays when they sit in a pub or cof- fee bar to mull or wander around Lon- don just looking. Jadhav noticed how the cityscape is punctuated by clocks, and often clocks with their own stories – one particularly inspiring one was at Stepney Green, dedicated to “Education and Benevolence”. The Greener is an orphan of immigrant stock whose job is to look after the clock, but she is no Cinderella. Although she has had no schooling, she studies astronomy and mathematics through her interest in horology, and explores theories decades ahead of their time – “We were interested in the idea that people don’t need formal education to be clever, young people know they can be that whatever their background” says Hingorani.
The three other characters are “Ma”, a kind of godmother based on the Indian amah, or nanny, and played by the ENO star Patricia Ro- zario; “Coster”, a young barrow boy; and “Author”, a well-to-do gent who does the fashionable thing of the 1880s, slumming it in the East End. Each has their own argot and style which help convey the story to a multi-cultural young audience.
Amahs, adds Hingorani, were brought by the colonial wealthy re- turning to Blighty to look after their children on the voyage, and were dumped, no longer needed, on the docks at Dalston. There was a spe- cial workhouse for them, ironically in Mare Street, yards from the Hackney Empire.
They spent time at Hackney Museum to get the social picture right, combed books on dialect and slang, particularly of Cockney, and haunted the clocks store in the basement of the British Museum. They tried early ideas out at the Barbican and then at the Hackney Empire.
The Greener, set in 1888 at a time of high migrant activity and the start of the campaign for female suffrage, is the first in a trilogy of operas Brolly is creating, each devised to blur the difference between musical theatre and opera, in each of which time, technology and social diversity are major tropes. The next, which Brolly will set to work on later this year, is set in 1759 and Greenwich at the time of chronometers, latitude and slavery; the third will be in present day Canary Wharf and the themes will be algorithms and trading, and the cycle should be completed in 2018.
Despite the £100,000 cost The Greener has been an economical operation. The original cast had at least five more characters, and the orchestra is a band of four. There has been support from the Arts Council, but
Brolly has spent much of their time as producers casting about for partners and sponsorships in kind. They have encountered nothing but good will, they say.
The score – and Faber Music is to publish it – is an ingenious fusion of the music by Ward that fits the char- acters because, Jadhav says, music can tell a story without words, just as dialogue and accents can be musical.
Meanwhile, Brolly is busy with other projects, the main one being her, a co-production with Limehouse’s Half Moon Theatre, about a girl in a conflict situation.
“We were determined to make an opera, and two years later no-one is more surprised than us that it is happening” Rachana Jadhav says. “But it all started with an idea we shared, and the important thing is that though partnerships are vital, we have had control of the project all the way through. That has been key”.
Clocks 1888: The Greener opens at CAST, Doncaster, on April 15 and at Hackney Empire on April 20.