By Jonty Watt
For four evenings in February, RAM was treated to performances of Daylighting, a new chamber opera by composer Louise Drewett, current Manson Fellow and PhD student in composition. In the beautiful setting of the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, the most memorable feature of Daylighting was its consistently charming—and at times downright brilliant—use of an entire class of primary school children. With two different local schools performing two nights each (Netley Primary School and St. Alban’s CE Primary School), Daylighting presented some daunting logistical challenges, quite apart from musical ones. Under the direction of Hazel Gould and with more than a little enthusiasm on the part of the children, however, these hurdles were overcome with impressive grace for an experience no one involved is likely to forget.
The plot of Daylighting revolves around the river Tyburn, a now-subterranean tributary of the Thames that flows along Regent’s Park through Marylebone (as with most rivers in London, the Tyburn was incorporated into the city’s sewer network). In an abnormally wet summer, we witness a small family struggle in their own ways with loss as flooding threatens their home. Just as the long-suppressed Tyburn swells to break its banks and emerge above London’s surface, so too do the memories of a dead father threaten to overwhelm young Ben (Hera Protopapas Wettergren), who finds comfort in the reliable presence of a friendly Regent’s Park heron (Theodore McAlindon). The libretto, written by poet Clare Shaw, has a consistently poised musicality. Having previously worked together, Louise describes a ‘hugely inspiring’ symbiotic creativity between her and Clare. This shone through in performance where most words were clearly audible even without subtitles—to the great benefit of the drama.
We also witness the fraught relationship between Ben’s mother (Harriet Cameron) and grandmother (Mia Serracino-Inglott). This dynamic was especially convincing, with the performers capturing that particular kind of tension that is best characterised by slightly awkward family holidays. After the climactic moment when the Tyburn breaches its banks, there is an extended musical dénouement in which the three main characters achieve personal closure. The serene yet complex vocal writing—which evoked the female-voice final trio from Strauss’s Rosenkavalier— seemed to encapsulate the complex relationship between the two older women.
Special praise should go to Louise for her creative solutions to the challenges posed by having child performers on stage for forty minutes without a break. With experience writing for amateur choirs, Louise has explored ways of efficiently generating intricate musical surfaces: ‘It’s something that I think about a lot: how can I make a complex result from only simple parts and repetition?’. One such solution is Daylighting’s use of aleatoric textures consisting of intentionally unaligned layers of song. These textures provided a rippling harmonic backdrop for the action while giving the children a part to sing in which they could be totally confident, knowing that their own contribution could never be ‘wrong’. The frequent use of body percussion conveyed a delightful ragged-around-the-edges naïveté that was a fitting analogue to the mind of our young protagonist, Ben. These moments were made all the more enjoyable by the masterful direction of conductor Otis Enokido-Lineham, whose charismatic fish-hands and finger-clicks kept everyone in impressive synchronicity (seriously, try and conduct a bar of 4/4 while also getting a class of primary school children to pretend they are fish).
The pièce de résistance of the whole show, however, was the school concert scene, in which Ben sings as a member of the children’s choir and his mother and grandmother sit in the stalls with the audience to watch. This was a beautifully judged way of incorporating a full-bodied sing-along for the kids which served a real narrative purpose. Both schools sang with admirable togetherness and musicality, an achievement of which they should feel very proud. Louise says that the focus in rehearsal with the schools was on getting everyone engaged with the story, something eased by the opera’s allusion to Marylebone landmarks. Indeed, this engagement was palpable throughout Daylighting. It really seemed that the children felt they belonged to something bigger than themselves—surely the best possible outcome for a project like this.
I left both performances of Daylighting that I attended feeling overwhelmingly positive. Not only had I been given a highly satisfying musical and dramatic experience, but on each night I also witnessed a whole cohort of young children get the opportunity to be an integral part of a genuinely musical contribution. It is often tempting when writing about music to make grand claims about its capacity for uniting disparate people, but when thinking of the children of Netley Primary and St Alban’s CE performing together on the stage of the Susie Sainsbury Theatre, it is difficult not to find yourself succumbing to this cliché.
To hear more of Louise’s music, you can listen to Stairway, another project she did at RAM, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3GxYzcc8jmw