Vocal Futures

Suzi Digby launches a new project for young people with Bach's St Matthew Passion at the core.

Classical music - like every art - has its fashions. And when, back in 1993, Jonathan Miller took the unorthodox step of staging Bach's St Matthew Passion, he started a trend. Sober and spiritual it may have been, but his production in Holy Trinity Sloane Square (revived earlier this year at the National Theatre) placed a sacred work within the secular grasp of the theatre. Where Miller led Deborah Warner's St John Passion followed, as well of course as Katie Mitchell's controversial post-massacre St Matthew for Glyndebourne. Last week, in the subterranean bunker that is the University of Westminster's Ambika P3 space, Bach's oratorio donned its latest costume.

Offering practical solutions while Michael Gove has floundered with postponements and platitudes, Suzi Digby is a serious force for good within Britain's music education system. Her Voices Foundation has been working in and with schools since 1993, and with this St Matthew Passion she launches a new project - Vocal Futures. Focused once again on young people, it places the Passion at the core of an ongoing series of workshops and practical encounters with classical music.

Most of this involvement takes place offstage however, leaving the production a purely professional arena. It's a wise choice, and one that for the most part avoids the mawkish sleeve-tug of sentimentality that can so easily blight Bach's purity. For neither of the Passions is strictly a dramatization of the crucifixion story; characters are fluid and often non-specific, the mood is meditative, cumulative, rather than narrative. It the great strength of Patrick Kinmonth's production that he makes little attempt to "fix" this.

Costumes are contemporary and neutral, framing action that favours an abstract sort of symbolism. Arms and eyes are raised aloft, chalices are passed from hand to hand, collective rituals of washing and mourning are played out with a tasteful lack of emphasis. Amongst the silent physical presence of a troupe of young actors, the soloists carve out more personal encounters with the text.

The alto solos become a timeshare affair, split - occasionally mid-aria - between Robin Blaze and Catherine Hopper. The logic here, exploiting the very different vocal colours for narrative development, perhaps works better in theory than practice, but the dramatic sympathy between the two singers was touching, only exceeded by the two Evangelists. While purists will doubtless object, the duality here worked well, with Joshua Ellicott and Samuel Boden each bringing a different emotional vantage point to the tragedy they recount. It was Boden however whose directness of delivery really sharpened the text (a new and occasionally unfelicitous translation from Jessica d'Este and Patrick Kinmonth) into the piercing blade it can and should be.

Willard White is opera's Morgan Freeman, and his Christus was predictably rich in gravitas. It was however disappointing vocally, and it was White together with bass soloist Stephan Loges who suffered most in the baggier passages of Digby's musical direction. By contrast, the chorus of young professionals - the two choirs split across both sides of the stage - propelled the action and energy forwards every time they sang. While Miller's choruses sing at each other, to the exclusion of the watching audience, here the seated chorus and silent actors offered a much more involving and flexible alternative. Aided by a surprisingly well-balanced acoustic the singers produced a beautiful ensemble tone, flexible enough to encompass both the lightning and thunder and the tragic fragility of the post-crucifixion chorale into a single musical trajectory.

The power of Bach's Passions is surely in what they leave unspoken, unpictured. The uncluttered symbolism of Kinmonth's direction represents an allusive negotiation between action and meditation - a semi-staging in the best and most uncompromising sense. Add to this some really excellent music, and Digby and this inaugural Vocal Future projects have made quite the start and quite the statement. I only hope someone in government is listening.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.