Peter Brathwaite: ‘I’m taking it into my own hands to tell stories of our shared history’

A report by Charlotte Higgins for London’s Guardian.

Baritone Peter Brathwaite is in his happy place: the rehearsal room. Just now he is working with the company, Little Bulb, that’s devising the Royal Opera House’s family Christmas show, Wolf Witch Giant Fairy. It is based on Little Red Riding Hood, but with other fairy stories ingeniously embedded. Like all the best shows about enchantment, the magic is also theatrical: it is the sorcery of an actor turning into a witch or a cat just by putting on a mask; it’s the alchemy of a multitalented cast slipping apparently effortlessly from singing to playing instruments to acting. Brathwaite is the frock-coated narrator. It is very different from working on an operatic classic. With Little Bulb, much of the show is being created in the room. “It’s really democratic,” he says. “Yesterday, we all stood around together, dissecting one of the songs, discussing all the various ways it could develop.”

Covid-19 has made such moments even more precious; Brathwaite, like thousands of other freelancers in the arts, saw his livelihood collapse as the pandemic took hold last year. His last performances before the first lockdown were of Songs of Arrival, a show he put together about the music of Jewish immigrants arriving in 1940s Manchester. Brathwaite grew up in the city’s Cheetham Hill, went to a majority Jewish primary school, and says he feels strong solidarity with “people who are likely to have been othered in their lives. My street was full of people from all over the world, and that has really influenced my desire to tell stories from all perspectives.”

Then, on Good Friday 2020, grounded at home in Bedfordshire, where his husband is a deputy head teacher, he decided to take up the “Getty challenge”. The Los Angeles museum was asking members of the public to recreate famous works of art using whatever they could find around the house. Brathwaite styled himself as an 18th-century portrait of an anonymous Black servant, then posted the picture to Instagram. At the start, he says, “I did it to take my mind off things. I like dressing up, and I thought: ‘This is a bit like an opera rehearsal and involves a bit of research and it’s quite fun looking for images.’”

For the next 50 days he continued, each time posing as a different Black subject of a portrait from the medieval period right up to Barack Obama in Kehinde Wiley’s presidential commission. As he went on, the captions began to swell with fascinating research, whether about the history of the Black Venetian gondoliers in Carpaccio’s Miracle of the Relic of the True Cross on the Rialto Bridge (c1494), or Alice Neel’s 1950s portrait of civil rights activist Harold Cruse. Sometimes the recreations gently probed racist modes of representation; sometimes they celebrated the all-but forgotten individual. He called the project Rediscovering Black Portraiture. It developed a keen following, and the results are now not only the subject of an exhibition at King’s College London, but soon to be made into a book published by Getty itself. Not bad for a lockdown diversion; but clearly there was, from the start, serious intent. “I became more and more determined to tell as many stories as possible,” he says, “I feel I learned a lot about how to develop a language that means that we can have these conversations. The playfulness of the photographs is disarming.”

Talking to Brathwaite, who is 38, is to encounter someone with a fierce sense of social responsibility, a conviction that in classical music “we can tell stories as a force for change and good”. His mother came to the UK from Barbados at 20 and worked as a nurse. He was a chorister at St Ann’s church in Manchester, got a music bursary to Bury grammar school, and studied philosophy and fine art at Newcastle University before receiving a scholarship at the Royal College of Music. In a series of essays for Radio 3, he has recounted how, during that time, he discovered voices such as that of Leontyne Price, the first internationally recognised African American soprano – now 94 – to become a worldwide star. He likens her voice to a Mark Rothko painting. Her sense of purpose also inspired him. Going to music college, he says, was all about acquiring skills – voice, acting, movement, languages – “but also working out, by the time I got to the end: what do I actually want to say by doing this?”

[I want to say things] that people might not think they wanted to hear, because they haven’t heard them before

Brathwaite often finds himself the only Black artist on stage. The memory of working with Chineke!, the majority Black and ethnically diverse orchestra, “brings a smile to my face – that feeling of standing in front of the orchestra and turning around and thinking: ‘Yeah, all right, it can look like this.’” He is clear that the time for talking about the lack of diversity on British opera stages, as well as behind the scenes, is over; it’s time to get things done. “I feel like the conversations are happening, but we need to do it. That’s why sometimes I just think, well: ‘I’ll do it myself.’”

At the moment, he tells me, he is reading a lot of Edward Kamau Brathwaite, the Barbadian poet and intellectual to whom he is distantly related; he can trace his family tree back to the 18th-century white Braithwaite or Brathwaite family, who were prominent sugar plantation owners and enslavers. This is partly because he is researching a possible show of Barbadian folk songs; but he is also, he says, struck by Kamau Brathwaite’s writing on griots, the bards and keepers of oral history in west African cultures. It was the audiences of these bards, wrote Kamau Brathwaite, who completed the community of the performance, creating “a continuum where meaning truly resides”.

That is the impetus behind devising his own work, whether that’s his show Effigies of Wickedness! about the music denounced as “degenerate” by the Nazis, or the new folk song project. “By devising these things, I can take it into my own hands to employ a team that is representative, and tell the stories of our shared history, Hopefully audiences will feel that they are involved in this as well.” He wants to say things that “people might not think they needed to hear, or might not think they wanted to hear, because they haven’t heard them before”.

In the meantime, he’s back in the Royal Opera House’s Linbury theatre, ready to bewitch a new generation with Wolf Witch Giant Fairy. “I hope seeing Little Bulb in action makes audiences realise that so much is possible,” he says. “There are so many possible worlds available to us through art.”

Wolf Witch Giant Fairy is at the Royal Opera House: Linbury theatre, London, to 3 January.

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