May 16, 2018

Silent City – a new community opera in
Matera, Basilicata, Southern Italy. Opera Circus

For three years we have been talking and working towards the first phase of creating a Community Opera, how to gather stories and music from a community, from children and the elderly.  This community is in the ancient town of Matera, in Basilicata, Southern Italy. A landscape of ragged rocks and mountains, forests and many small villages which between them speak 92 dialects. As in so much of Europe there is poverty, unemployment and the drain of young people to the cities. But there is also massive beauty, great traditions and rituals, gentle hospitality and unique food.

We are working with Nigel Osborne, composer and human aid worker, who has a lifetime of experience of creating community art with an integrity that gives voice to the creativity of everyone participating.  He estimates he has probably encouraged the creation of around 600 community performances, music theatre and in some cases operas, as well as his own compositions.

In the last 14 years Opera Circus (www.operacircusuk.com) has supported and worked alongside Nigel both in commissioning new chamber operas and developing work with children and young people across Europe, in particular in Bosnia and Herzegovina and India.  His vast intellect and compassion for humanity, his ability to use music to benefit those with trauma as a result of war, to hospice bound cancer patients and children suffering in the world from a myriad of ailments, bought on by distress, disease and the damage of conflict.

Photograph by Robert Golden

Photograph by Robert Golden

Developing opera this way:

This isn’t the easiest way to work. It takes great patience. It can be all too simple to brush aside the carefully chosen notes and simple words in favour of something more sophisticated, or perhaps more suitable to the professionals or even the funders.

There are two main partners, aside from Opera Circus, Senzaspine (senzaspine.com) a vibrant young orchestra from Bologna and Compagnie Teatrale l’Albero (http://www.lalbero.org) from Matera, the lead partner.

Other partners are joining in as we begin this journey, including a local music and theatre school, Il Setticlavio, the University of Basilicata and the Conservatorio di Musica, “E.R. Duni” in Matera and all of us partnering with Fondazione Matera,  the Italian City of Culture in 2019. Duni is the most well known of Basilicata’s composers. There is interest in the fact that Duni was involved with the threshold-of-enlightment thinking and it resonated through him and other composers including Debussy and into the electroacoustic music of the late 20th century. We have much to explore.

Photograph by Robert Golden - Matera, Italy

Photograph by Robert Golden

The artists involved in the development of Silent City include Tommaso Ussardi, composer and conductor with Senza Spine (http://www.senzaspine.com) Ubah Cristina Ali Farah, poet and librettist, Robert Golden (www.robertgoldenpictures.com), photographer and film maker, James Bonas (http://jamesbonas.com), theatre and opera director, Andrea Ciommiento, Dramaturg from the National Theatre of Torino, the two artists who run l’Albero, Vania Cauzillo, theatre director and film maker and Alessandra Maltempo, opera singer and with myself, wandering between the worlds of art and music, diplomacy, internal and external, local and international and consultant, mentor…a bit of a chameleon as always.  Above all as with every type of creative work I have ever been involved in over 30 years, there is never enough funding. So we seek from anywhere and everywhere a further €25000 – €50,000. Therefore, we joined forces with The Marketing Heaven, which through a social media campaigns points to the importance of our work, while helping us attract sponsors who would gladly participate in this project.

It takes a while to realise that we are working in a landscape of creative schizophrenia.  We all have to recognise that this is an EU Project with everything that comes with that, impact studies, evaluations, reporting restrictions, creative commons and ownership and the deathly hand to art of the overly weighty bureaucracy.  And then there is of course the strange version of English language of crash tests, outputs, stakeholders, competencies, etc., etc., It is interesting that this use of a bureaucratized and contorted English seems much more common amongst artists in Italy than in the UK.

On the hand without the EU funding we wouldn’t have met each other nor started out on this absorbing process together.  

Community art is the delicate process, “A Restless Art” as Francois Matarasso calls it. (https://arestlessart.com) It’s called ‘a restless art’ because ..”…..this work is unstable, changing and contested. It involves a range of ideas and practices. It crackles with artistic, political, ethical and philosophical tensions that give participatory art life, energy and creativity. They are what makes it matter in people’s lives.”

John Fox, who along with Joan Littlewood stands for everything we aspire to as Citizen Artists, and who founded Welfare State in 1968 says:-

“We advocate a role for art that weaves it more fully into the fabric of our lives; that allows us to be collaborators rather than spectators”.

John wrote a Manifesto in January of this year, called A New Role for the Artist and it is worth sharing here.

“Population growth, global warming, scarcity, religious and cyber wars, famine, environmental degradation, nuclear proliferation and refugees, signal EMERGENCY. As our financial and religious frameworks are also collapsing, and our media drives anxiety, DEPRESSION looms. So how do we celebrate what is worthwhile and gives us peace of mind? Traditionally some artists have offered inspiration. In our consumer culture however, many of us, including artists, are hi-jacked by spectacle, novelty and celebrity, and encouraged to create investment product. 

In this unsettling time we must look to process to find the ground rules of a culture, which may be less materially based, but where more people will actively participate and rejoice in moments that are wonderful. A culture where more of us grow and cook our own food, build our own houses, name our children, bury our dead, mark anniversaries, create new ceremonies for rites of passage and devise whatever drama, stories, songs, music, pageants and jokes that enable people to live more creatively.

Dominant fashionable so-called art, currently perpetuated by a small number of cultural gate-keepers, their institutions and their manipulative dealing, needs to be re-colonised as a mode of intuitive knowledge with a vernacular root. (vernacular – any value that is homebred, homemade, neither bought nor sold on the market).

A new role for the artist as catalyst, hands on facilitator and celebrant who recognises the artist in us all and liberates the innate creativity of every age through participation and collaboration. A society where re-generation is of the soul and not of economics.” John Fox MBE. 22 January 2018

Some further thoughts from Francois Matarasso, the great cultural commentator.

“Every community has heritage or cultural resources that are important to them, and in respect of which they have unique expertise. heritage includes folklore, buildings, oral history, the natural environment, contemporary arts, music and dance traditions, festivals food culture, museums and community events..

Effective community projects produce a wide range of developmental outcomes, alongside their intrinsic value. They can develop people’s skills in many areas, from performance, construction or IT to abilities such as teamwork or project management. The skills bring confidence founded on actual achievement, recognised by others. Projects also build social capital in the form of relationships and of trust with others, which can support the creation and growth of community organisations from informal associations to social enterprises. Self managed projects are also within people’s means local skills and expertise.”

Opera Circus will be writing more, following this and many other of our projects together with the constant challenge of our survival of integrity and purpose.

For more information have a look on these web sites…and if you can participate in ensuring more young people can be part of the work we do, please donate to our crowdfunding campaign…Young People’s Creative Learning for Life.

The Complete Freedom of Truth


Tina Ellen Lee
Artistic Director
Opera Circus

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