When Sarah Grange first conceived the idea of initiating an operatic project for the ground-breaking Tète-à-Tète: The Opera Festival in Hammersmith, she can have had little inkling of quite how remarkable this particular artistic journey would turn out to be. Her chosen subject for A Quiet Life was the life of Annie Jump Cannon, a ground-breaking American ‘blue stocking’ who was born in Dover, Delaware in December 1863, the daughter of Wilson Cannon, a shipbuilder and state senator. She attended one of the first ladies’ colleges in America, Wellesley College in Massachusetts and gained her degree in 1884, specialising in Maths and Physics. After her mother died, Annie’s emotional distress was cruelly exacerbated by a physical blow, as her hearing, already severely damaged by a childhood infection, deteriorated further, to the point of deafness.
In defiance of the limitations this imposed, she returned to academic life in 1894 and followed up her childhood interest in astronomy professionally, becoming part of a ground-breaking and, most unusually, female-dominated team at the Harvard Observatory under the aegis of Edward Pickering (known variously as ‘Pickering’s Women’, ‘The Harvard Computers’ and, less flatteringly, ‘Pickering’s Harem’). Her close association with Harvard lasted until her death in 1941, by which time she had become the world's leading expert in stellar classification and (in 1925) the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from Oxford University. Annie discovered around 300 stars and catalogued over 300,000 others, and a prestigious annual award in her name is still going strong.
When Sarah Grange approached composer Stephen Bentley-Klein to suggest they should collaborate on a piece celebrating this extraordinary woman, she found the perfect foil. Bentley-Klein, who trained at the Guildhall School and in New York, has a dizzying CV embracing film scores, the role of music director at Shakespeare’s Globe, working with Shirley Bassey, Barry White and David Cassidy – and he even conducted the orchestra that accompanied Deep Purple on a recent concert tour. He also has a deaf daughter, Charlotte.
He brought with him into the project Katherine Mount, a classically trained singer with magnetic stage presence, whose deaf son Ethan is a member of the children’s choir that took centre stage in the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games. Katherine was already working with Steve Bentley-Klein on a musical tribute to Ethan, in which she both sings and uses sign language. That technique was carried across to the proposed new opera. Leading deaf choreographer Mark Smith joined the team, taking time out from his preparations for the Opening Ceremony for the Paralympics, as did Janine Roebuck, a remarkable and indefatigable mezzo soprano who has graced most of our leading operatic stages and who, since the age of 18, has suffered from progressive hearing loss.
The team has carefully crafted a piece of musical theatre that can speak both to those who can hear and also to hard-of-hearing and deaf audience members. The entire 20-minute piece – which I watched in rehearsal – is captioned and signed, but the sound is also subjected to various forms of transmutation. There are speakers that deaf people can touch during the performance, creating a musical environment that is unusually accessible, and very physical and tactile.
The music is also being played through water, which is intended to give those who are blessed with good hearing a lively sense of how sound warps through hearing aids. Steve Bentley-Klein’s daughter participates too, as one of a five-member chorus, leading the sign language with touching delicacy and a hypnotically beautiful range of expression, while her four colleagues follow her lead and also sing out loud.
The music has a hypnotic quality too, with hints of Britten-style gamelan to it, scored for a range of instruments including piano, cello and several of their far more recherché cousins. Together they tell the story of a brave, intelligent, pioneering woman, the course of whose life was dramatically changed by two strokes of Fate – her mother’s death and her encroaching deafness. Despite its brevity, this remarkable piece truly is a feast for all the senses and its unusual use of media is anything but a gimmick. Perhaps music is here crossing another barrier and taking another significant step forward towards true universality.
A Quiet Life by Sarah Grange and Stephen Bentley-Klein will be performed at Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival, at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, on Saturday August 11 (8pm) and Sunday August 12 (5pm). Details.