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Loud Crowd at Bold Tendencies
Viktor Ullmann’s Emperor of Atlantis, directed by Polly Graham at Bold Tendencies 2018, rehearsal shotPhotography Nate Gibson and James Doyle Roberts

The London company bringing urgent, political opera to a Peckham rooftop

Bold, relevant, and activist: Loud Crowd’s Polly Graham on why the power of opera should not be slept on

The rooftop of the Rye Lane multi-storey car park in Peckham is wide open; a stage in the sky with a panoramic view over the London metropolis. It’s here where Bold Tendencies runs its world-class arts and cultural programme and civic space. Commissioning sculpture, architecture, music, and opera; it provides a disruption of the arts as we know them.

This weekend sees the first performances of Bold Tendencies’ two-year opera programme in collaboration with Loud Crowd, a new and innovative opera company. Opera, in many ways, is the final frontier for engaging young people in the arts. In that vein, this fresh programme is of zealous appeal to a younger audience: emotional, politically-charged, and unconventional. The two operas, Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis and a special rehearsed reading of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ Young Blood!, will run on Saturday 15th and Sunday 16th September on the rooftop. Supported by Selfridges and with additional funding for 2018 from Arts Council England, this initiative seeks to help define what opera can mean for a younger generation.

“Because (opera is) telling a story through the power of music – not words – it transcends language and unites people on a visceral, emotional level” – Polly Graham

“Opera can speak almost more directly than any other art form,” says Loud Crowd Artistic Director, Polly Graham. “Because it’s telling a story through the power of music – not words – it transcends language and unites people on a visceral, emotional level. There’s something inherently political in people coming together to experience this in a live way.” The high-up location adds to the drama and, as night falls, will fuel the performances with an epic, dystopian atmosphere. “The panoramic view of a mega city develops the political elements of the piece even more”, she says, “because the audience will constantly be considering questions of civilisation.”

Loud Crowd aims to help energise and invigorate opera, with unexpected sound worlds and relevant political storylines that will galvanise support from younger audiences. It’s not, as Graham explains, that opera is of dwindling interest. Rather, she feels her own generation (“all those who are interested in literature and visual art and dance but somehow don’t come to opera”) are missing out. “There is a huge amount of exciting activity going on to tackle this problem,” she says. “Opera can always do with as much invigoration as possible because in a traditional form it can be so expensive that it gets stuck in a traditional format with a culture of elitism. It’s finding a way to balance all of that.”

It’s for this reason that both this weekend’s operas are accessible, in-line with current affairs and, in their own way, radical. The Emperor of Atlantis, a short opera written by a group of Jews from the Terezin concentration camp in 1943, will be open to the public for £10 per ticket on Saturday and Sunday. This is a satire of the Nazi regime in which Death calls a strike, outraged by the megalomaniac Emperor that has declared a war that will only end when there are no survivors left. “It’s a simple parable”, says Graham, “which examines the value of life in relation to death – whether life has any value if it’s infinite and whether death is a thing that humans should fear. It’s incredibly moving given the circumstances under which it was created, but it also speaks of issues that we are going through today.” Mixing jazz with chamber music and cabaret – outlawed music of the Nazi regime – the sound world of The Emperor of Atlantis is at once fresh, nostalgic, and powerful; diverting from the expected.

On Sunday, there will also be a 60-minute rehearsed reading of Young Blood!, written in 2010, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School, New York. Equally as innovative in sound, it tells three stories from different times in history; the radicalisation of children by Chairman Mao in the Chinese Cultural Revolution; the American rights activist James Meredith, who was the first black man to attend the University of Mississippi; and the White Rose students who were executed for condemning the Nazi regime in Munich. “Bringing those three stories together creates this amazing whirlwind of history which is far more than the sum of its parts,” says Graham. “It’s a storm of history that questions radicalisation, populism, and how much one person can do against a crowd. It’s so on point with what’s happening now.”

“In a traditional form (opera) can be so expensive that it gets stuck in a traditional format with a culture of elitism. It’s finding a way to balance all of that” – Polly Graham

This is a taster for what’s to come. Next year, Loud Crowd will perform the full opera at Bold Tendencies, which Graham previously produced in 2016 in Wales. “It was just after Brexit. It felt incredibly relevant then and, as the months go by, it just feels more pressing and more acute.” It was an immersive experience, where performers mixed in with the crowd, shaking their hands and trying to recruit them. This visceral, physical approach helped break down the barriers between audience and stage, resulting in a potent emotional effect. “It felt more like a gig than an opera performance,” says Graham. High up on this Peckham rooftop, you can bet it will pack a punch.

In a nutshell, this weekend’s performances will be bold, relevant, and activist. They will chime with younger audiences, delivering an important message in a current, moving way. “I think opera is one of the final frontiers, where there’s more work that can be done to re-energise and rethink what the art form can be, actively trying to appeal to younger audiences,” says Graham.  

Along with Loud Crowd, there are several companies making steps in the same direction. Case in point, Téte à Téte is a London-based company commissioning new opera, Silent Opera (also London-based) is building on the idea of the silent disco to create a gig-like experience, and companies like Birmingham Opera and The Opera Story are exploring innovation in a multitude of different ways. “It comes down to trying to communicate to people that opera is the most thrilling kind of theatre and dance and visual art, combined into one experience,” says Graham. “That’s what makes me tick and why I love it, and that’s why I want to share it with more people.”

The Emperor of Atlantis plays Saturday 15 and Sunday 16 September at 7:30pm and Young Blood! plays on Sunday at 3pm