In an all-new documentary and premiere that aired on BBC Four on Sunday the 6th of September, performance artist Bryony Kimmings took us through her newest project. “Opera Mums” charts her attempt to write and direct a short operetta based on the experience of being a single mum. Kimmings is an experimental performance artist whose work ranges from a musical about Cancer, a show in which she traced her STI back to its source, and an experiment in which she was kept intoxicated for seven days straight. It seems that she certainly has something new to bring to the opera world as a newcomer to the form, and the documentary traces her introduction to this unfamiliar artform as she watches the ENO’s 2020 production of Carmen. Kimmings’ observations about opera’s women always dying and the lack of female composers and directors are not new to many of us versed in the opera world, but they do draw attention to the fact that her experiment is a fairly rare example of a woman writing about women’s lives on the operatic stage.
With some help from the ENO and composer Vahan Salorian, Kimmings sets about writing her single mums’ operetta. She reaches out to and interviews five other single mums, in order to set each of their stories to music. Each come from different backgrounds and have differing experiences, from the council flat mum of five whose husband up and left just after she came home with her baby, to the mum who instigated the split herself after experiencing such serious post-natal depression that she considered throwing herself in front of a bus. One of the mums, Leigh Woolf, is an opera singer and plays herself on stage, singing about that moment when she comes home from work and pauses on the doorstep, taking one more second for herself. Once Kimmings’ libretto and Salorian’s music is written, the documentary takes us through the process of putting a new opera together, as the team search for the perfect cast and choreograph the show.
After three days of rehearsals, everything is ready for the actual premiere, staged in the exquisitely Victorian Hoxton Hall in East London. The music by Salorian brings the whole operetta to life beautifully. It strikes a careful balance between the harsh, dissonant moments of worry and stress in the mother’s lives, with the more bittersweet and melodic bars. It also includes some beautiful and carefully orchestrated ensemble moments, as fragments of the mother’s thoughts weave in and out of each other, building after each of the mother’s scenes as they add their experiences. It was executed wonderfully by a small cast, and much use was made of the ornate balconies and stage. The operetta ends on a poignant tone, acknowledging the complexity of motherhood, and that despite all the difficulties the mothers would never wish a moment of it away. It was a shame the operetta did not last longer than fifteen minutes, you were left wanting a lot more, for each of the mother’s stories to be expanded on and explored. Instead it felt like you had only seen a fragment of a much bigger piece.
What is perhaps most striking about the operetta is that Kimmings’ observation that the lives of single mums are just as emotional, dramatic and moving as any opera in the canon is correct. This is not just a play for single mums, but for any mother and anyone who ever had a mother. The operetta proves that opera needn’t always be about fantasy worlds or larger than life stories, in fact, ordinary people’s lives in the modern day are perhaps exactly what the opera world needs to stay relevant. It would be exciting to see the operetta staged on a much larger, more revered stage such as that of the London Coliseum where it could quite easily fit as a prelude to any of the ENO’s full length productions, and it seems a shame that the ENO were not prepared to do this despite their involvement in the production. After the premiere, Kimmings expresses that she is sure the opera world will slowly catch up. Here’s hoping that it does.
“Opera Mums with Bryony Kimmings” is available on BBC iPlayer until September 2021. Find it here.
Elena Veris Reynolds, September 2020