Go East Young Man – Jenni Roditi talks about her opera Spirit Child

Written by: Duncan Hadfield

London in May – the capital goes ’opera bananas’. The Royal and English National Operas mount their biggest blockbusters; the Covent Garden Festival plays everything from Handel to Sondheim via Gilbert and Sullivan; whilst balmy summer nights also lure the opera-fan further afield – the delights of Glyndebourne, Hampton Court and Holland Park. It’s a competitive arena to say the least, but there still seems room for more as this enterprising venture demonstrates – three performances (one a matinee) on Thursday May 17th and Friday May 18th of the world premiere of Spirit Child, Jenni Roditi’s new music-theatre piece, performed by Lontano, under the redoubtable Odaline de la Martinez at London’s newest musical venue, Ocean in Hackney.

Attending rehearsals regularly this is a busy time for the composer; I managed to catch up with her to discuss the inspiration behind, and the logistics of mounting, Spirit Child. “I suppose I’d like to think of myself as a ’hands on’ creator so I wrote Spirit Child in direct response to a documentary about the Chinese oppression of Tibet and the abduction of a young boy, the 11th Panchean Lama, in 1995. I’d always been interested in Eastern mysticism, and it seemed like a fascinating idea to interweave the story of the kidnapped Lama with that of the young Siddhartha himself, so you might say that the action of Spirit Child hovers between two worlds – that of the ’lost boy’, the abducted Panchem, and the ancient world of the young Buddha – whose life story and transition to eventual enlightenment the captive relates to his captors. A further inspiration for that split-time scheme came from another source, which to some extent treats the same subject matter, Bertolucci’s film The Little Buddha.”

“Fashioning the libretto I wanted wasn’t going to be easy but I think I found the ideal collaborator in Rebecca Swift who is an old friend and so seemed almost intuitively to sense what I wanted and what I was trying to get at. With much discussion, it took her some six months to come up with something genuinely intriguing, dramatic and poetic. I then fiddled and amended her text even further in the process of finally bashing Spirit Child into the shape it’s in today. It’s been a long haul and an ongoing process that’s taken up most of the last five years of my life.”

“Spirit Child is a full-length opera – almost two hours with interval and employs a cast of six – three men and three women, including the almost unique voice and stage-presence of the singer and performance-artist Sianed Jones, who takes on the main role. It’s difficult to describe how she sounds – one really has to hear her – it’s a voice full of technique and precision but by no means classical, which I didn’t want. In fact throughout the piece I was striving for a world-music feel, a fusion of styles, incorporating Indian ragas, folk, soul and much more. To that end the accompaniment is somewhat eclectic. I employ what might be called an unusual line-up of nine instrumentalists, who play a range of instruments including the Armenian pipes, the duduk.”

“Spirit Child was always going to be immensely helped to its premiere by the incredible Odaline de la Martinez whom I’ve always admired for her dynamic championing of both interesting and new repertoire, as well as the work of women composers. To my mind I couldn’t be entrusting the score to safer or more sensitive hands. As for Ocean, yeah, again amazingly exciting to be the first contemporary classical event to be presented there. It’s a spanking and vibrant new venue in the heart of the East End, and as Spirit Child has so many ethnic strands and overtones, I hope it will attract an equally colourful and multi-cultural audience. I’d like to think there’s something appealing in it for everyone – and trying to achieve that aim of universality is probably what took me so long.”

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