Home > Reviews > Live Reviews > 23/11/2011 | YES The Opera – Royal Opera House, London

23/11/2011 | YES The Opera – Royal Opera House, London

Melanie Spanswick


On 22rd October 2009 a television programme changed Bonnie Greer’s life forever. She had been invited onto BBC One’s flagship political debate show, Question Time, to appear alongside BNP leader Nick Griffin in what was to be the most controversial episode ever broadcast. Greer was so affected by the programme that she decided to write an opera about it.

The writer says that whilst the television appearance was uncomfortable (she spent an evening besieged in the BBC Television Centre) the outcome has been positive. ‘Sitting next to Nick Griffin was like sitting next to someone who was drowning’ Greer says, ‘That’s partly why I wrote the opera: When I left that studio I had to run it all back through my mind and decide what I felt about it’. It was the Question Time audience that really interested Greer. She says that on observing the audience reaction to the discussion she realised that ‘they weren’t so much asking questions as making statements about how they felt’.  The opera is a way of expressing ‘something for those people, because they never got the chance to say what they had to say. I heard emotions, thoughts, passing feelings and half-formed sentences’.

‘Yes’ is Greer’s first opera, she wrote the script and also appears onstage as narrator. It’s a one hour work with music by composer Errollyn Wallen. The opera opened this week for a short run at the Linbury Studio, the small theatre at the Royal Opera House. It consists of nine singers and a small ensemble of musicians. The work is set in the week leading up to the programme and ends just before the broadcast.

The stage set is very dramatic with seats either side of a raised stage area that is black and white. Everything in the show is black and white seemingly to hammer home the underlying themes. The music is very diverse: there are elements of reggae, gospel, medieval and contemporary classical. The characters come from a wide social background and the music emphasizes their emotions: a middle-class black family, a white East Ender, an Asian city high-flier, a white pensioner and a Muslim teacher. The work is cleverly constructed possibly leading the way for future opera structure. About 20 stories run concurrently so there are many brief scenes that end quickly with a recurring riveting chorus binding it all together. The music is sophisticated, hard edged, quirky and above all, convincing.

Some of the singing was fabulous: nine performers (Alison Buchanan, Omar Ebrahim, Michael Henry, Mark Le Brocq, Clare McCaldin, Richard Morris, Marie Vassiliou, Claire Wild and Nikolas Winters) who were completely integrated throughout as well as having solo arias.

This won’t be everybody’s cup of tea and there are weaknesses; it’s hard to imagine the opera being staged in a large theatre as it’s necessary to be close to feel part of the proceedings and some of the themes are hard hitting. The flow was often broken due to the constant scene changes too. However it makes a powerful statement which highlights many difficult human questions. Definitely a thought provoking evening.