Oil giants vs opera: creating The Shell Trial

Eleanor Knight
Saturday, March 16, 2024

The World Premiere of Ellen Reid's new opera 'The Shell Trial' at Dutch National Opera takes on questions and emotions surrounding climate responsibility

It’s Spring again and its not just tulips you’ll see in Amsterdam but the magnolia are out and those who keep an eye on these things predict an early show of cherry blossom along the canals, the result of another mild – and very wet – winter. As climate change alters the rhythm of the seasons it’s clear we ought to be doing more to stop it. But with an average of 1,270 flights in and out of Amsterdam every day this month – many of them 45-minute hops from the UK to enjoy the spring flowers – it’s also clear most of us are a long way from taking responsibility. 

The Shell Trial, a new opera from American composer Ellen Reid opens tonight at Dutch National Opera as part of the Opera Forward Festival – an initiative which challenges and explores the concept of (ir)responsibility. It asks who is responsible for tackling the climate crisis and, given that Amsterdam sits 2 metres below sea level, the issue is existential. 

‘I didn’t write this because I have answers - That’s not why I write music. I wrote it because I want to ask the questions, and have an audience sit together with the questions.’  

With The Shell Trial, Dutch National Opera & Ballet begins its new Green Deal – a set of guidelines to produce opera and ballet productions in a more sustainable way. It asks that creative teams incorporate as many ‘green’ materials in their designs as possible and that they use these materials as efficiently as they can. Issues such as set recycling, costume recycling and ways to reduce travel movements are also covered in the Green Deal. 

In 2021, following a successful court action by Milieudefensie/Friends of the Earth Netherlands and 10,000 Dutch citizens, a court in the Hague ruled that it is oil giant Shell, and not consumers, was legally responsible for its contribution to climate change and must make changes to its own corporate policies. A play, De Zaak or The Shell Case, by Rebecca de Wit and Anoek Nuyens followed the prismatic narratives of culpability and responsibility throughout the trial and proved a hit on stage and television. The resulting ethical ‘overwhelm’ as Reid calls it, is where The Shell Trial opera begins.  

The Shell Trial will begin Dutch National Opera's commitment to green initiatives within the opera and ballet that it produces

Awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her opera Prism about post-traumatic stress from sexual assault, the Los Angeles-based Reid is no stranger to emotive or engulfing subjects. On writing about the climate crisis Reid says: ‘It’s definitely something I always think about and it felt really exciting to see if we could find a way to put the rising emotions, the sense of responsibility and overwhelm and the whole charged energy around the topic on stage. It felt big, it felt operatic, it felt dramatic. Something really exciting to explore.’   

What can opera do? ‘As someone who’s spent time in my life making this music I have to believe that it matters’ she says in a break from rehearsals in Amsterdam. ‘But I’m not a climate scientist, I’m not a social scientist. I don’t know if it matters, but I think art has a way of letting the listener go deeper into uncomfortable questions, uncomfortable situations and doing that in a group of people in an audience can raise a new perspective or allow people to think in different ways than they’ve thought before. These are powerful questions to sit and think about together. That’s why it’s important.’   

Reid’s music certainly has an all-enveloping quality. Describing herself as a composer and sound artist, Reid’s USP is to create textures that are rich, strange, visceral and high-intensity. Either by manipulating the sound of an orchestra electronically or having traditional instrumentalists deploy unusual techniques, Reid shapes the sound in such a way as it can feel like wearing headphones over your whole body.

It’s a powerful experience, but can it give any answers? ‘Music appeals to a different part of our brain. I think we listen differently when something’s sung. I think some part of us we’re able to receive more information through the music and so we hear language differently.’  But no, it’s not didactic. ‘I didn’t write this because I have answers’ she says, ‘That’s not why I write music. I wrote it because I want to ask the questions, and have an audience sit together with the questions.’  

Composer Ellen Reid | Photo: Erin Baiano

The questions shouldn’t present any surprises – least of all to Shell, whose 1991 film ‘Climate of Concern’ explicitly outlined the potentially devastating effects on the climate of its own carbon emissions. Using the term ‘greenhouse refugees’, Shell’s film showed the catastrophic human consequences of widespread food insecurity and rising sea-levels. 'We need help', it pleaded, 'to cut your dependence on fossil fuels'.  

You might be forgiven for thinking that the corporate giant would be glad of the little legal nudge. Far from it. Shell is currently appealing against the ruling, claiming that it is already doing its bit and can only go as fast as society wants it to go. ‘The problem is,’ says Charlie Kronick, Oil Campaigner at Greenpeace UK, ‘that every part of Shell – or a similar large corporate – reaches into the fabric of society and everything they do slows down what society can do.’ Meanwhile, Shell is extending its legal reach into the heart of Greenpeace and suing for damages after activists peacefully boarded a floating oil platform to ask the company to stop new drilling. 

‘It feels a bit daunting’ says Kronick, ‘But on the other hand it feels empowering. I’m not going to mangle the words of Ghandi but it brings us to the stage of having stuff done to us. Shell must be worried to be bringing a court action when they claim they’re fulfilling their obligations. It means they’re in an endgame in which they have to squeeze every last dollar of value out of their assets for their shareholders. We’re definitely in an endgame. How long that game is I don’t know.’ 

Endgame or crisis, whatever stage we’re at, the circularity of the arguments come around with accelerating ferocity, just like our increasingly alarming seasons. Are answers to be found in courtrooms, theatres or opera houses? How much is action against climate the responsibility of individual citizens, governments, or international business? The Dutch ruling suggests a sea-change in treating all these as one and the same with a shared responsibility for the greater good. What we need to find now is a way to face the music together. 

 The Shell Trial is at Dutch National Opera until 21 March | www.operaballet.nl


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