A report by Michael White for the Hampstead and Highgate.
Composer Hannah Kendall draws on her Guyanan heritage to pen a chamber opera on a poet and political activist
Diversity is a word much spoken in the music world these days, but without too much consequence. Female composers have more visibility than in the past, with Judith Weir blazing a trail as Master of the Queen’s Music; but they’re still relatively exotic. And as for black female composers, I only know of two who get significant performance opportunities.
So step forward Hannah Kendall, whose new chamber opera ”The Knife of Dawn” premieres at the Roundhouse next week.
Born and raised in NW London, but with family roots in Guyana, Kendall has steadily built a reputation for her work through festivals like Cheltenham, which commissioned pieces in both 2011 and 2012, and performances at the Festival Hall, QEH and other venues that helped her win a 2015 Women of the Future Award for arts and culture.
The Cheltenham pieces – “Citygates” and “Shard” – were celebrations of life in London. But they prompted deeper thoughts about her ancestry.
“I love this city”, she tells me, “but having written those pieces I decided I needed to know more about Guyana, where my family comes from. So I started doing some research.
“Guyana’s profile in this country isn’t high, and people get confused that it counts as part of the Caribbean but is actually on the mainland of South America. But it used to be a British colony. And its struggle for independence is the background to my opera, which is based on the writings of Martin Carter,”.
Carter is an almost unknown figure over here, perhaps because he stayed put in his homeland when other Caribbean writers like V.S.Naipal and Derek Walcot relocated to the UK and became the literary representatives of that part of the world. He was a poet, political activist, and opponent of British rule – which is how he came to be imprisoned for a month in 1953, without trial, and on hunger strike.
Kendall’s opera homes in on that period of imprisonment, using a text based on Carter’s poems, five of which create a basic structure for the piece . “They work like sign-posts for the whole thing”, Kendall says. “And they can be extracted from the score as a free-standing song cycle”.
Packaged around the poems and connecting them together is a more conventional libretto by British-Guyanese writer, Tessa McWatt, which explains the wider political context and has Carter argue with himself about the wisdom of his stand against the British.
As Kendall explains, “He asks himself what’s the point of doing this, when he has a family at home to support? Can anything realistically be achieved? And can a poet really be an activist?”
Another question the composer might well ask herself is whether this niche subject for an opera can attract an audience? Kendall has written it without commission, and is putting on the show herself. Which is some risk, financially.
There are only two performances at this stage, both on the same
day, beginning with a matinee
for children who’ve been learning about Carter and Guyana, and
the wider world of turning stories into opera, as an in-school
Kendall is involved with London Music Masters, an educational charity concerned, as its mission statement says, with diversity and excellence in classical music. So schools programmes are in her blood. And the ones she’s running in connection with her piece are, she explains, “designed to challenge the idea that opera isn’t for me. Or that the subject of this particular opera isn’t for me”.
“It’s about opening minds to the fact that opera is just another way telling stories. And, I hope, that Martin Carter’s is a story worth telling”.
There are plans to stage “The Knife of Dawn” in Trinidad next year. But meanwhile it’s at the Roundhouse on October 6: the schools performance at 2pm and the general at 8pm. roundhouse.org.uk