War veterans’ experiences inspire new opera

Published: 5 November 2018

The experiences of present day war veterans and the centenary of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale have inspired a new opera, The Soldier’s Return, from Opera Sunderland, which was formerly known as Music in the Minster.

The Soldier’s Tale, a suite for three actors, a dancer and seven instruments, which tells the story of a soldier who sells his violin to the Devil in return for unlimited riches, premièred in Lausanne in 1918 and had a concert performance in London in 1920 but was first performed in full in Newcastle in 1926.

The Soldier’s Return is drawn from interviews with Wearsiders involved in recent and ongoing combats. It explores the impact of conflict when soldiers return home, not only on the soldiers themselves, but also their families and the wider community.

The libretto is written by T S Eliot Prize-winner and 2018 Durham Book Festival Poet Laureate Jacob Polley and the music by Marcos Fernandez-Barrero, who wrote the music for the company’s first commission MIRACLE! An Opera of Two Halves, performed in Sunderland Minster in November 2015.

They are joined by three other members of the MIRACLE! creative team: Artistic Director Alison Barton, director Annie Rigby and musical director Marco Romano.

“The libretto has been made out of interviews with veterans, of two or three generations,” said Polley. "I was struck by the power of what veterans had to say and the ways they said it. I didn't do much but arrange this material in what I thought was the best shape to evoke the matter and spirit of what we'd heard. That the work we've made is so moving and strong I hope is testament to the experience of those veterans and their willingness to talk to us and take part.”

“I was really struck, in talking to veterans,” said Rigby, “about how they felt that civilians didn’t really understand their experiences. Although we might imagine the experiences of servicemen and women, somehow our imaginations don’t get close to the reality of what it’s like to be in active service, away from home. This opera, built out of the interviews we carried out, aims to explore that distance between home and away, between comradeship and family, and share their experiences with a public audience. I think it’s going to be a really beautiful and special piece.”

Opera Sunderland is a registered charity that believes opera is for everyone, making it available, attractive and accessible by creating opportunities for the people of Sunderland. The commission is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England and, as with all of Opera Sunderland’s work, The Soldier’s Return is about local people taking part—from sharing their stories, to workshops and performance opportunities. The company plans to involve as many local residents as possible, including offering free singing roadshows in partnership with The Cultural Spring, and schools workshops.

Alison Barton, who was born in Sunderland and whose family still lives in the city, trained at the Royal Scottish Conservatoire before embarking on a 30-year career as a freelance opera singer (mezzo-soprano), performing on operatic stages and concert halls with numerous orchestras and opera companies throughout the UK, and has broadcast nationally and internationally on radio and television.

Annie Rigby runs Unfolding Theatre, based in Newcastle, and was Resident Director at Northern Stage (2003-08) and Northern Rock Foundation Fellow on the Clore Leadership Programme (2007-08).

The Soldier’s Return will première at Sunderland Minster in November 2019. More details, including how to take part, will be available in spring 2019.

Peter Lathan