British opera singer creates work to reveal humanity of enslaved ancestors

[Many thanks to Veerle Poupeye (Critical.Caribbean.Art) for bringing this item to our attention.] Harriet Sherwood (The Guardian) writes about Peter Brathwaite’s Insurrection: A Work in Progress, an operatic work meant to highlight folk traditions as a form of resistance.

A leading British opera singer is developing a work based on the music of his enslaved ancestors in Barbados as a way of examining complex historical events and highlighting forms of resistance.

Peter Brathwaite and the Royal Opera House (ROH) will present Insurrection: A Work in Progress to audiences in March, inviting feedback from the public that will shape the opera’s next stages.

Brathwaite, a baritone who has sung for the ROH, English National Opera, Opera North, English Touring Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour, has drawn on family history and historical research for the work.

Enslaved people were forced to live under draconian codes that denied them basic human rights. Brathwaite said those in power used the codes to target music “because they were very concerned that enslaved people were using music to send messages, and incite rebellion and revolution. They wanted to exert their power to control black culture.”

But music could not be suppressed, he said. “These folk traditions are really strong; they’re about resistance and they’re about remembrance of former freedoms, but they’re also about laying something down that can be passed on to future generations.”

In 1816 enslaved people in Barbados revolted, burning cane fields and destroying property. The rebellion lasted nearly two weeks before the colonial governor managed to restore order. By then, the insurgents had caused property damage worth more than £170,000 – about (£10.5m) today.

Their folk songs survived as an oral tradition and were now part of the national curriculum in Barbados, Brathwaite said. “They tell us a great deal about enslaved communities in Barbados, so they’re hugely important.”

Insurrection, his operatic work, will also examine music used by enslavers as “a weapon, to suppress”, including pro-slavery propaganda songs.

Brathwaite said in many communities, “enslaved people were infiltrating seemingly English sounds with polyrhythms, melodic lines that were very much from west Africa. Their persistence and resilience allowed them to hold on to what was theirs and create something that was wholly new.”

Insurrection was “about scratching away, trying to expose how people were fighting for their rights and asserting their humanity”.

The singer is collaborating on the opera with the director Ellen McDougall, the writer Emily Aboud and the music director Yshani Perinpanayagam. The Barbadian pianist and composer Stefan Walcott is the cultural consultant. [. . .]

For full article, see

[Photograph above by Sama Kai: An Insurrection cast member takes to the street in London.]

One thought on “British opera singer creates work to reveal humanity of enslaved ancestors

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s