14 April 2024

Choirs in fine voice at first Opera in a Day workshop

A project to create an ‘Opera in a Day’ that will be performed at Hull’s Freedom Festival has held its first workshop in Withernsea – and it’s not too late to get involved. Sam Hawcroft went along and joined in…

The Everyman Project is bringing communities across East Yorkshire, Hull and North Lincolnshire together in singing, circus skills, dancing and making.

York-based creative professionals Em Whitfield Brooks and Tim Brooks have been holding sessions with people of all ages in recent weeks, which will culminate in a “sharing celebration” (they are deliberately not calling it a “performance”) at Stage@TheDock as part of the Freedom Festival on Sunday, September 3.

On Thursday, July 13, the first of two workshops in Withernsea took place. Members of Withernsea Ladies’ Choir and Hornsea Choir had been specially invited to take part, but Em and Tim are keen to stress that all are welcome and they would love to see more people come along to the next workshop on Thursday, July 27.

The one-act piece that will be performed – or should I say “shared” – at the Freedom Festival is called Everyman, composed by Tim with lyrics by Em, and it is a modern interpretation of the traditional morality play. The central character, Everyman, is not a man as such, but the personification of the average person, ordinary and humble, facing the trials and tribulations that life – and death – throw at them.

The session at the Withernsea Methodist Church hall began with Em leading the warm-up, something the choir members were familiar with – it involved lots of stretching, flexing and making weird noises in attempt to loosen up both the body and the vocal cords. At one point Em asked people to try not to smile, and instead relax their faces, but that proved somewhat difficult…

Then Em led the singers in a rendition of a traditional Inuit lullaby, a repeat-after-me exercise that tested the memory but also sounded stirring when sung as a canon. Patrick Pearson, musical director of Withernsea Ladies’ Choir, said he loved it so much that he would look to include it in a future performance.

Warm-ups done, it was on to the music proper. Those who were familiar with reading “the dots” were given simple scores, while others were handed lyric sheets. However, being able to read music was not essential, as Em energetically led the singers through the piece in stages (the choir members had already divided themselves up into sopranos, second-sopranos, altos and baritone – the latter represented solely by Patrick).

The music was cleverly composed by Tim in that the dissonant, clashing notes sounded complex, but were easy enough to pick up in reality. It wasn’t long before the singers had learned most of the parts, which ranged from stirringly operatic to syncopated jazz-gospel, and there was even a bit of rap.

From a personal perspective, I had arrived at Withernsea Methodist Church somewhat tired – the Thursday after our hectic Wednesday newspaper deadline day is always a bit of a comedown – and I was unsure I’d make it through the evening without falling asleep.

Far from it – the session was invigorating and joyful, and I left feeling positive and energised, that I had achieved something. I had no hesitation about signing up to the next workshop and the final show at the Freedom Festival.

This was mission accomplished, as far as Em was concerned. She said: “The aim is always
to bring people together and make everyone feel really fantastic – and that’s partly through the physical process of singing. I want people to leave feeling better regardless of anything else. And then it’s making sure that everyone explores their voices and surprises themselves.”

Tim and Em had travelled from York to see Withernsea Ladies’ Choir perform at St Patrick’s Church in Patrington on July 24, so they were already aware of their considerable talents.

Still, though, Em was full of praise for how the choir members took to the challenge of learning a new piece in just two hours. She added: “We were really pleased to have seen them in concert beforehand. It was a tough call starting with the first piece of choral music rather than just starting with a lovely tune, but they really rose to it. Their focus was amazing – so much so that we may bring in a new piece next time.”

Patrick was equally happy. He said: “The choir reacted really well, and I could see in their faces that they all enjoyed it. They actually enjoyed warming up for a change!”

He acknowledged that encouraging people in Withernsea to take part in such projects can often be a challenge. “There always seem to be so many events going on here, but there’s often a reticence towards getting involved – but we’ve got new members every time we’ve done concerts, so that’s one area we’re building up, which is good. And the choir are getting asked by so many people to go and do other events, and I think this is the reason we were approached by the Everyman Project.”

After the next Withernsea workshop on July 27, further workshops and final rehearsals will take place in Hull on the day of the show, from 10am, culminating in the Sharing Celebration at 3.30pm.

The characters of Death, Knowledge and Everyman will be performed by professional opera singers, with actors taking other parts – but the hope is that between 100 and 150 people from all walks of life will form the chorus.

So organisers can gauge the numbers beforehand, people are urged to register to take part at freedomfestival.co.uk – the sign-up process will open on Friday, July 21.

The Everyman Project has a Facebook page, as well as a private group to discuss the latest developments – you can request to join at facebook.com/groups/1341966516671371.

It’s not often that the chance to perform at the Freedom Festival comes along, and the show promises to be a thrilling celebration of creativity, community and togetherness.

I’m in – who’s going to join me?