The Yorkshire moors town of Todmorden sits deeply hemmed in at the foot of three Pennine valleys some 17 miles north of Manchester. Its Hippodrome Theatre, the scene of a threefold season (4-6 July 2013) for this opera sits on the same Halifax Road that also has a frontage for the Todmorden Town Hall where the local orchestra is conducted in often adventurous programmes by Nick Concannon Hodges. The theatre decor is in wanton red with gold and blue detailing contrasting with the mock Egyptian and Grecian affluence of the Town Hall. The skilled and clearly dedicated 16-strong orchestra crowded the pit. The fact that this community theatre – an example of pocket grandeur – opened in 1908 make it roughly contemporaneous with the events portrayed in Emily.
Tim Benjamin (b. 1975), a pupil of Anthony Gilbert, Steve Martland and Robert Saxton, lives in Todmorden and has secured many prizes and commissions. In the early 1990s he was BBC Young Musician of the Year. This is the seventh of his operas so he is clearly transfixed by the medium. It’s also his longest score to date.
The Emily of the title was the Suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (1872—1913). She was a fervent activist and although a member of the Women’s Social and Political Union, as a rugged individualist, acted by herself rather than operating within the WSPU ‘command structure’. Her arrests were for stone-throwing, assault and arson, and she was one of those force-fed at Holloway Prison. She met her death from injuries after being hit by the King’s horse, Amber, competing in the Derby at Epsom; intriguingly one of the contemporary sources claimed that the fatal injury to her skull was not caused by an impact from the horse. In any event the race took place one month and a century before last night’s premiere. It is not clear whether Davison intended her own death but having chosen to rush out into the path of the horses at the point where the media’s cameras were concentrated her protest certainly gained high and enduring dramatic prominence. The early cine footage of this event (not portrayed in the opera – it didn’t need to be) is one of the most public icons of a movement that largely secured its goal after the personal and social seismic upheaval of the Great War. It was achieved gradually through various Representation of the People Acts between 1918 and 1926 – at least so far as the law is concerned. Incidentally, I wonder if this opera the only one where the convoluted long title of an Act of Parliament is sung, as it was at the very start of Emily.
The libretto for Emily was researched by Benjamin mainly at The Women’s Library in London among a large collection of original material relating both to the Suffragette movement in general and Emily Davison in particular. Mind you, before we get too seduced by the original language we need to remind ourselves that it too – or some of it – will be liberally soused in the political posturing and propaganda of the time.
The opera is as the composer says “a sequence of dioramas … beginning with a brief account of the ultimate victory of the suffragettes … then presents scenes from Emily Davison’s life leading to her death at Epsom Downs.” The only named character is Emily. The others are designated as professions or generic groups: A Doctor, A Judge, a Woman and so on. This emphasises Emily’s isolation and her decision to act alone. It also courts criticism as poster-art caricature territory and just that hint of sloganising.
The composer’s approach here was to have the music embracing the text tightly and deploying “many strands and themes, some overt and some subtle. Rendered in music (short sequences of notes, some rhythms, some chords / collections), they formed my starting-point.” These components are applied “forwards, backwards, upside down, stretched and chopped up, and through juxtaposition with each other”, and intensify the text which when sung was projected in surtitle form. The music avoids big set-piece arias and instead imaginatively complements the words taken verbatim from original sources, including letters to the press and letters – often vituperative – to Davison as she lay dying in hospital for four days after the Race. The music is essentially lyrical, seething with instrumental detail, but dressed from a wardrobe that accommodates a sombre dissonance. Parallels are always dangerous, but think in terms of a meeting place between Berg’s Lulu and Weill’s music theatre. I should emphasise, though that Emily is most definitely opera and not a musical. Extractable set-piece arias are avoided except perhaps “The Hub of the Universe” finale where Emily’s spirit joins the full cast holding ballot papers high and radiantly triumphant; it brought the house down. A ruthless and fascinating concentration on the narrative is maintained – a tribute to composer and the young but utterly convincing singers. It was great to hear such green and sappy voices as opposed to the braying vibrato we often encounter. I should also add that Benjamin’s writing broadly reminded me of the approach found in an English opera of the 1990s: Will Todd’s underestimated Victorian era Brunel.
The scenery is spare, Victorian and subdued. It is used and lit with economy, efficiency and effectiveness. There are many telling effects and the riot scene is amongst them. I am not sure whose idea it was to give the force-feeding scene in dumb show on one side of the stage and three Establishment Bloods foppishly singing the words of letters praising the use of force-feeding on the other. However it worked magnificently – a grim effect unnervingly well registered.
The resilient and steely Davison stood out impudently from her aristocratic celebrity sisters. A teacher, she seems to have come from working class mulch and was perhaps seen as all the more dangerous for that; and perhaps also something of an alien presence within her own sisterhood. I detest the word, feisty, but that is how she was played here. She is not seen in act 2 except as a corpse in a very strange and comically gruesome post-mortem scene and as the spirit of barricade victory in the finale. All the voices and the acted characterisation were strong and despite the anonymous titles these singers managed to fend off most of the tendency towards political caricature with just enough to express vibrancy. The Policeman/Gaoler was particularly memorable, as was the Doctor and rather wan barrister.
The market day scene in act 2 was vivid with the hucksters’ banter, sham medicine mountebank (where can I get that Fat cure?) and theatre promoters making a rather good counterpart to similar Vanity Fair scenes in Vaughan Williams’ Pilgrim’s Progress and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd - the latter another dark Victorian extravaganza. Clever to weave in among this welter of Mammon reports of Davison’s protest at Epsom. The sly and dapper little journalist was memorable.
There was a preview production of Emily at New Music North West 2012, a new music festival based at the New Music Theatre, Royal Northern College of Music on 9 March 2012. Two more performances are scheduled for July 5th and 6th.Go to see it and you will not be disappointed. It’s serious without being earnest, political without any propagandising.