'It takes years to build an opera company from the ground up but only a short time to dismantle one': Q&A with composer Des Oliver

Hattie Butterworth
Friday, June 7, 2024

Opera Now Editor, Hattie Butterworth speaks to Des Oliver about his opera 'Windrush, The Journey' which is currently touring with Pegasus Opera Company

Composer, Des Oliver
Composer, Des Oliver

Photo Credit: Des Oliver

Q. How are you hoping to honour the legacy of the Windrush Generation with your Pegasus commission?

A. In crafting this opera, I aim to honour the legacy of the Windrush Generation by bringing their stories to life through the lens of four distinct characters. Each character embodies a unique aspect of the Windrush experience: Avril, the timid yet determined young woman aspiring to be a nurse, represents the hopes and dreams of many who sought better opportunities in England. Smiley, with her strong moral compass and unspoken love for Avril, highlights the resilience and quiet strength that defined so many. Vanley, Avril's charming yet flawed husband from Trinidad, illustrates the complex personal journeys and challenges faced by many within the Windrush community. Lastly, Don, the conscientious former World War II soldier, underscores the deep connections to the Empire and the varying interpretations of loyalty and identity.

Through their interactions and individual aspirations, we see a tapestry of experiences that mirror the real-life stories of the Windrush Generation. By showcasing their journey aboard the Empire Windrush and their subsequent lives, the opera pays tribute to their resilience, their contributions, and their enduring legacy. Moreover, by presenting these narratives through the Pegasus Opera Company, known for its dedication to celebrating and reflecting diverse communities, we ensure that the spirit of Windrush lives on, continuing to inspire and unite future generations.

Q. Do you have a personal connection to the project?

A. Every Windrush descendant shares a deeply personal connection to this story, which extends far beyond the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in 1948, encompassing many voyages over several decades.

A central theme of the opera is that Windrush continues to resonate with all of us. It lives on in subsequent generations. It endures through the Pegasus Opera Company led by its visionary creative director, soprano Alison Buchanan. Their community work bridges the gap between different generations and races, and the legacy of Windrush is reflected in the faces of many audience members, each carrying their own unique 'Windrush' stories.

My father was a small child when his parents left St. Catherine’s Parish, Jamaica in the early 1960s, settling in East Anglia. My grandparents could not afford to bring all of their children with them to the UK in one go, so the younger children, including my father, stayed with relatives in Jamaica until they could afford to send for them. This was not an uncommon practice, and many children were separated from their parents for months, or even years.

Q. Has the Windrush Opera impacted your compositional style?

A. From the beginning, my goal was to infuse the opera with the rich and vibrant musical tapestry of the Caribbean, incorporating elements like calypso, mento, and various lesser-known Caribbean folk traditions, as well as drawing inspiration from groups like the Frats Quintet of Jamaica. My immersion in the works of artists: Lord Kitchener, Lord Invader, and Macbeth the Great has deeply influenced my sound world. The opera traverses different time periods, offering a unique opportunity to explore later styles like rocksteady, ska, and, of course, reggae.

Equally important was ensuring that my Western classical 'roots' were authentically represented. I wanted to honour the sounds of these diverse musical traditions while expressing my love for opera and its cultural legacy in a way that felt natural and unforced.

I’ve always considered myself to be something of a cultural 'cocktail,' and my music often reflects my dual heritage. However, this opera marks the first time I've consciously and deliberately brought these influences to the surface.

Q. Opera audiences are still predominantly white. What do you think it is about opera specifically that makes it a space where Black folk feel they aren't welcome?

A. It's a complex question. I've never subscribed to the notion that there is something inherently alienating in the 'sound' of the music itself, given the abundance of Black performers and creators who are drawn to it, and indeed the audiences that regularly attend Pegasus Opera Company concerts. There is no shortage of enthusiasm, intrigue, and love for music.

Globally, there has, in fact, been a legacy of Black participation and contribution to the art form for centuries, both professionally and in the amateur world, though not always acknowledged.

Much of it has to do with addressing preconceptions about the medium head-on: giving people access to new and unfamiliar experiences, reaching out to different communities, swinging the doors wide open, and saying 'This too is yours'—something that Brixton-based Pegasus Opera Company has been doing successfully for nearly three decades.

Q. Inclusivity in opera and classical music is often spoken about. What systemic change does there need to be to ensure everyone feels welcome in the art form?

A. It's vital that opera companies take seriously the necessity to hire ethnic minorities both on stage and behind the scenes who reflect the diversity of our society. This commitment to demographic representation should extend to management and senior positions within our major institutions—representation is key.

The commissioning of new operas by individuals from global majority groups as well as all artists from working-class backgrounds provides opportunities to tell new stories and, moreover, to attract new audiences. One of the strengths of opera as a medium is its capacity to accommodate a wide range of voices and perspectives, offering a platform for multifaceted narratives and experiences to be shared and celebrated.

But, for that to happen, our government needs to recognise the value of opera and the arts through continued and consistent investment. It takes years to build an opera company from the ground up but only a short time to dismantle one.

In recent years, Western classical music has faced battles on several fronts: the ruthless and cynical defunding of music organisations, both large and small; the chronic underfunding of music education, particularly in working-class areas; and a manufactured culture war, often exploiting outdated preconceptions about who this music is for. Despite these challenges, I believe there is no shortage of goodwill within the world of opera. In my view, it has been far more effective in engaging and uniting diverse communities than concert music ever has.

Windrush, The Journey is on tour until 28 June | More information can be found here.

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