By Tim Benjamin | June, 2013 (originally written for Todmorden News and published in that paper, Hebden Bridge Times, and Halifax Courier)
My wife and I moved to Todmorden only 4 years ago, but since then our life has changed dramatically with the arrival of our daughter Violet and meeting so many great new friends. We wanted to escape the rat-race of London and start our family in the beautiful surroundings and fresh air of Todmorden, where we have restored a Victorian house up on the hillside.
Working as a composer is never straightforward, but the Calder Valley is the perfect place in which to write. Inspiring landscape, peace and quiet, of course, but not too much so: there is plenty of life at hand of all kinds, along with the nearby cities of Leeds and Manchester, so I’ve never felt in danger of becoming a “pastoralist”.
There is also a great amount of top quality music and drama right here in Calder Valley — quite disproportionately so, I feel, compared to the wilder parts of north London where I grew up.
As an occasional pro trombonist I soon joined up with the brass band scene — a new experience for me — and found more familiar territory playing for nearby swing bands and symphony orchestras, in particular the seriously good Todmorden Symphony Orchestra, right on my doorstep.
I have been trying over the years to build a reputation as a composer of opera, particularly of the “chamber” kind, by which I mean short one-act pieces, designed to be performed in small theatres and non-standard spaces. While my musical language is quite intense and undeniably at the modern end of the “classical” spectrum, I find that working with drama really helps people get into it.
I usually work alone — without a librettist — basing my pieces on “found” texts never intended to be sung. I’ve used material as diverse as bread recipes, Internet forum postings, diary entries, and even a scientific paper. My most recent project, the opera Emily about the Suffragette Emily Davison, uses a wide range of source material such as police reports, correspondence, Hansard, graffiti, newspapers, and even the 1911 Census.
Of course simply writing the music is nothing if it’s never heard. In London I was spoilt for talented musicians, and I formed a group to play new music by me and other composers — the line-up included some of the top classical musicians, often seen leading sections of the top national orchestras or even sometimes performing concertos with them!
Having moved North, I naturally therefore wanted to find people willing to play my particular kind of new music, and expected to have to trawl the nearby large cities. Not so! Right here in Todmorden there are exceptionally fine classical yet broad-minded musicians, and within 10 or 20 miles there are dozens more. Not only that, there are plenty of interesting venues here, from the atmospheric Unitarian Church to the beautiful Hippodrome to the historic Town Hall (the acoustic of which works wonders for the large-scale Romantic orchestral repertoire).
And so, two years ago, I decided to stage my first full-scale opera, Emily, at the Todmorden Hippodrome, with as many of those top-notch musicians I could persuade to join in. There’s also a level of enthusiasm and pride here that you struggle to find in the urban sprawl of London: and so putting together a sizeable Chorus for the opera was a pleasure. I found the amazing theatre designer Lara Booth just down the road in Hebden Bridge and I persuaded local Choral Society maestro Antony Brannick to join up as music director.
Our production opens on 4th July, just after the 100th anniversary of Emily Davison’s fatal act of protest at the Epsom Derby. Although the subject is apparently quite dark, one thing about opera is that it allows you to bring all emotions and all shades of light. We’ll show humour and pathos alongside the tragedy, and while everyone knows how Emily Davison ended up, the story we tell is much broader than that.
There has been interest from all over the place in our production — perhaps the first opera in Todmorden’s history, so far as we can tell — national newspapers have written about it, people from all over the country (and abroad!) are travelling to the area, and I’ve even been on BBC World Service talking about it. I really hope and believe that doing a project like this can have long-term benefits for Todmorden. With the spotlight on our theatre and musicians over the next week, people from all over Calder Valley and far beyond will discover that you don’t need to go to London to find opera — the one art-form that includes almost every other art-form — done to a really high standard!