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ORT Report - Susie Self: Quilt Song

The modern opera, Quilt Song, brings together historical and contemporary civil rights figures from Rosa Parks to Jo Cox, sewn together with ideas of social diversity.

The premiere of Quilt Song at The Old Rep Theatre comes exactly 100 years after John Drinkwater’s Abraham Lincoln premiered in the same auditorium. Drinkwater’s granddaughter - director, playwright and conductor (amongst many other things) Susie Self - decided to create Quilt Song to mark 100 years since her grandfather’s play was performed at The Old Rep, as well as reviving a play that allows the audience to celebrate heritage and community. This meant basing a lot of her ideas and even lyrics on the original play, whilst also including some modern ideas to bring it more up to date. For example, Abraham Lincoln was mentioned in the confrontation between Rosa Parks and the bus driver where the bus driver exclaims his hatred for the late American president Lincoln, but we also see Jo Cox, the politician who was murdered just two years ago, in June 2016.

The opera showcases an immense amount of musical talent, with soloists Elizabeth Cragg, Maureen Brathwaite, Tristan Stocks and Susie Self leading with their rich vocals. These talented performers tell true stories like that of Rosa Parks, who in 1955, changed history in America when she refused to give up her seat for a white man on a bus. Maureen Brathwaite played the great Rosa Parks expressively, making her a very likeable character. Tristan Stocks played the antagonist, the horrible bus driver. In this role, Stocks showed off his strong tenor vocals as well as his extensive vocal range. Elizabeth Cragg played the modern-day Jo Cox who was murdered in 2016. Cragg brought elegance to the role as well as incredible singing ability. Susie Self not only showed off her ability to sing as a mezzo (the singing range between an alto and a soprano) when portraying the male character of The Poet, but we also got to see her showcasing her talents as a conductor when she wasn’t on stage performing.

Quilt Song not only had the performances of the four soloists, but also included the voices of the Universal Choir and the incredibly talented students from BOA. Together, with the onstage orchestra, including classical orchestral instruments as well as the Alma Guitar Trio, they brought Self’s idea to life. This music in Quilt Song is very different from how most operas are written. For most of it, the rhythms and tune are quite complex – making it quite unusual and unique.

Quilt Song is certainly weird and wonderful, with unusual presentations of ideas and concepts ­– one of the biggest being co-director Marina White Raven’s silent character of a very expressive black bird, later switching to Cerberus, the Boatman’s dog. The black bird was more of a symbolic rather than physical character, maybe foreshadowing future tragic events, as the main people portrayed in Quilt Song are no longer alive today, and in their time had all experience some sort of  struggle or suffering. The character of Cerberus comes from Greek mythology, where it is believed that a monstrous dog with multiple heads guards the gates of the underworld to stop spirits from leaving or escaping. However, this was changed in Quilt Song as Cerberus was not presented in an evil or malicious way but was actually rowing the boat, helping the characters cross to the other side.

The entire performance is accompanied by a screen presentation playing behind the actors, showing videography created by the composer including certain backdrops like the sea to place the audience in the setting with the actors, as well as words from the original Abraham Lincoln.

One of the key messages the audience is left with comes from Jo Cox:

“We have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Article by Miraan Mendy (Year 12 Musical Theatre) as part of our ORT Report scheme with BOA.