Composer Hannah Kendall shares how taking positive action helped attract a wider audience to opera.
About the Knife of Dawn
The Knife of Dawn is a one-man chamber opera inspired by the life and works of Guyanese poet and political activist Martin Carter. It was first performed at The Roundhouse in October 2016 and sold out, achieving an audience that was approximately 45% black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME).
As a British composer of African-Caribbean heritage, diversity in classical music is important to me. At London Music Masters (LMM), we work at education level to ensure that everyone has access to extraordinary music. Recently, we've talked more about education being just part of the picture. Despite strong learning initiatives, ensembles and audiences are not changing in terms of diversity. I wanted to address that in my work as a composer.
In planing The Knife of Dawn, I decided to take positive action and create a role specifically for someone of African-Caribbean origin. The decision was prompted partly by our conversations and work at London Music Masters. I wanted to present diverse role models that would help encourage young people to pursue music beyond education. It was also inspired by a performance by Chineke! Orchestra, Europe's first BAME orchestra, at Queen Elizabeth Hall in 2015. Despite performing a traditional repertoire, they achieved a new audience for classical music by changing who was on stage.
I wanted to welcome a wider audience to opera, including younger people and people from minority backgrounds. I knew if I wanted to achieve that, the venue needed to be not traditionally associated with classical music so I approached The Roundhouse. Although they'd never hosted contemporary opera before, they were immediately open to the idea.
I wanted the story to be something that people from wider backgrounds could engage with. It was important to me that the subject matter be grounded in human experience, rather than mythical or fantasy like some opera.
Martin Carter is considered one of the leading Caribbean writers so I knew he would be a draw for the African-Caribbean community. His story also touches on cultural, political and social issues that are still relevant today.
Martin Carter fought for Guyanese independence in the 1950s and was imprisoned without charge. The Knife of Dawn is set in his prison cell towards the end of a hunger strike in 1953. The story incorporates six of Carter's poems, which also form a separate song cycle.
Image: The Knife of Dawn © Sarah J. Scott
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