We all went off to BBC Broadcasting House on Wednesday August 1st to be interviewed by Sean Rafferty for Radio 3 In Tune. Here’s what got said:
SR: Live in the studio with us this afternoon: they’re talented, they’re bold and innovative, they are Tête à Tête opera. The latest project, beyond the accepted boundaries of science, it’s a multi-sensory opera based on the life on Annie Jump Cannon who was a major part of the astronomy team at Harvard until she died in 1941. She catalogued over a third of a million stars in that time and she was deaf. Well that’s no barrier for this inventive lot. Sarah Grange is the librettist. Just before we hear this talented group of musicians, Sarah, is it a story of her life or how would you describe it?
SG: It’s a kind of looking back I suppose, we’ve got Annie in two stages of her life in the piece with us, so we’ve got an older Annie looking back and a younger Annie, so it’s looking at this crucial moment in her life where her mother died. She was really devoted to her mother, and it’s about the same time that she lost her hearing so we’re kind of tying those two experiences up together.
SR: And where are we in this piece we’re going to hear now, with these assembled voices and musicians?
SG: I know, we’re a tribe aren’t we? We’ve taken over.
SG: We are in about 1894 in America
(We play the first three mins of the pice)
SR: Thank you very much indeed, an excerpt from his brand new piece, and Stephen Bentley Klein has been conducting our, I think, dozens of musicians, in A Quiet Life, and it’s part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival on the 11th and 12th of August. Tête à Tête, as you may or may not know, at Riverside studios. It starts tomorrow and it’s about 70 companies doing all sorts of diverse things. Well, Sarah Grange is the librettist we heard briefly from, Stephen’s written the music and Janine Roebuck’s been singing and this is about a sort of heroic figure in America who became deaf, I mean, you would say you are a hearing impaired or a deaf mezzo, would you?
JR: I’m severely deaf, my hearing loss is progressive, I first noticed problems when I was about 18, and I wanted to embark on my career as a singer, but I didn’t let it stop me, I wanted to do it so much.
SR: You went ahead and no one knew for a long time.
JR: Well, foolhardy I suppose, but I’m so glad I did because technology has improved considerably over the years and can do quite remarkable things for the children of the future, which is really exciting, cochlear implants and that sort of thing.
SR: Well, that’s just tremendous, and watching you there, there’s absolutely no sign of any problem whatsoever.
JR: You weren’t in the rehearsals! (laughter)
SR: But you’re a great inspiration to people. So you have to try harder to hear where the sound comes from, or do you just not hear the sound of your own voice as much?
JR: It’s easier just to sing on my own, but it depends very much on the acoustic, which instruments are used, what octaves they’re played at, but Stephen has been absolutely amazing and so helpful, you know “what do you need here?” and giving it to me. For the first time in years I’ve really been relaxed about it all and not anxious.
SR: Fantastic, and what do you think about specifically then Stephen, that Janine might need? Not so many high frequencies or..?
SBK: No, What I’m doing really is I’m seeing where her entries are and I’m building into the music a way that she can really get her note before she comes in so the music is really being designed so that when you have an entry, we’ve prepared you for it as well as we can.
SR: So when we say it’s multi-sensory, Sarah, what does that mean? There’s music, there’s movement, there’s drama..
SG: We’re looking at lots of different ways of making the piece accessible to people with a whole range of hearing loss, hard-of hearing and deaf, so we’ve got sign language incorporated in, all the singers are signing their words as they go and we’ve had Mark Smith who runs Deaf Men Dancing helping us choreograph that in, we’ve got captions in the piece and then we’re looking at a variety of ways of using the vibrations of sound, so we’ve got speakers set up in different ways so they’re making water vibrate, or they’re put out in such a way that audience members can hold them and feel the vibration that way.
SR: Fantastic, well, we look at someone like Evelyn Glennie, the great percussionist, who can feel the sound coming through her feet, and that certainly hasn’t stopped her. I’m sorry we couldn’t find a huge water butt for you to try out whatever nefarious thing you were going to do in the studio, it sounded a bit too dangerous!
This will inspire a lot of people I suspect, Janine, to come to the opera or to come to something musical where they might have not thought they could have got anything from it
JR: This is what I find so very exciting about the project, is that people who perhaps are form the deaf community, who were born deaf never had the opportunity to come and participate in musical activity so this is something for them and we hope very much to include them and that’s really wonderful, but at the other end of the spectrum you have people who love music, loved it all their lives at the ages of 60, 70 they start to lose their hearing, got hearing aids but it’s not the same as it was, they’re terribly distressed, and this is a way of bringing them back again so that they can still enjoy the music they’ve loved all their lives.
SR: Good, well, I have a great friend who’s in that position, and she got part of it, you know, when we went to some great event recently, and we’re very lucky we can get as much as we can. Annie Jump Cannon, who is the heroic figure at the heart of all this, the American astronomer, a third of a million stars in her lifetime, she didn’t let anything put her off did she?
SG: Absolutely not, no. She had an amazing time, she travelled all over the world and really was at the top of her profession and on top of being deaf, you know, she was frequently the only woman in the room, she’s working at a time where women in science is incredibly unusual anyway, so she really did live an extraordinary life.
SR: Well, the flag is flying high, How would you describe this Stephen, is it an opera? It’s a multi-sensory experience, but it basically still is an opera?
SBK: It’s still an opera, yes, it is an opera.
SR: Otherwise we’d have you up under the trades description act!
SBK: Exactly! When Sarah first came to me I thought, “An opera? Do I want to write an opera?” And then she mentioned this Annie Jump Cannon, and I thought, hang on, I’ve got a deaf daughter, I’m working with Katherine, one of our singers, she’s got a deaf son. We were working on one of her songs and she showed me a video of her signing it and I thought, there’s so many possibilities once you look into it. We’ve got Liam who’s processing our sound live underwater so that audience members who are hearing can go “Oh, that’s maybe how deaf people are hearing certain things.”
SR: Ah, so that’s where the water connection comes from?
SBK: Yes, we’re the sort of new rock and roll of opera because when we asked about it they said “oh no, you can’t bring it to the BBC!” We thought we were going to get banned before we’d even arrived.
SR: No, we wouldn’t do that, we will have a swimming pool for you next time should you so desire!
But what’s next for you Janine? You’re still singing, you’re singing mainline opera and concerts aren’t you?
JR: Well, that’s what’s so exciting about it, I was thinking well, perhaps now, my hearing’s getting worse, I shall start winding down, and just perhaps doing recordings as it feels less.. I can do it again if I get it wrong, so that’s less threatening for me, but actually we’ve been talking about ways.. Have you seen on.. Umm, they have these sort of earphones in, young pop singers, and maybe I can wear something similar.
SR: I don’t see why not. You can have designer ones if you like.
JR: I might keep going til I’m 90, darlings.
SR: Listen, thank you all so much, it’s really inspirational and it’s at the riverside studios, the festival starts tomorrow, but the 11th and 12th is when they are, details of that. You’re going to play something for us to finish.
SBK: We are, it goes underwater as well, into the stars.
SR: There you are, stars underwater, please adjust yourselves, adjust your reality and join us, thank you very much indeed all of you.
(we play the transition section, when Annie loses her mother and begins to lose her hearing).