Back in Bloom

Whilst many things in our lives still feel uncertain, Barefoot Opera’s belief in the power of singing to heal and lift our spirits, as well as the determination to bring Bloom Britannia to the stage, has remained undiminished.  

Bloom Britannia, its ‘people’s opera’ project is relaunching this spring, with online workshops and rehearsals taking place after Easter. The aim is to create a huge chorus of local people who will sing alongside professional singers and musicians for a big production of the opera, hopefully in the Autumn. It’s completely free to take part, thanks to funding from the Arts Council, as well as support from the Good Governance Institute.

Bev Lee Harling
PICTURE: Chris Parker

The relaunch begins this week with a promotional film by filmmaker, Janet Hodgson, titled: It takes a town to make an opera: Bloom Britannia, followed by a panel discussion. Janet is keen to highlight the joys and pleasures of taking part in the project and also to emphasise the flavour of Hastings, St Leonards and Bexhill. She says: “This is a truly inclusive project, and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – a community making its own opera, open to people of all backgrounds, experience and singing ability.”

Bloom Britannia was conceived after the success of Barefoot Opera’s previous production, Clash, written by Orlando Gough, who has a reputation for bringing together influences from classical music and pop, folk, jazz and grime. It’s opera, but not quite as we know it – incorporating these other genres, and an orchestra that even includes a beat box.

The opera features local professionals, such as Bev Lee Harling, Chiara Vinci and Tom Clarkson, but also all kinds of singers from the local community. One participant, Poppy Martin, was completely new to singing when she first got involved with Bloom Britannia – at just eight years old. 

Bloom Britannia portrays the life of a fictional seaside town – Malhaven – at once a place of hedonism and gentrification, and of deep division and social unease. It’s also in dire need of a facelift. Sounds familiar? The characters are not unlike people you may have met in local pubs or heard about on Facebook. And the voices you will hear – ranging from a leading soprano to a jazz-singing busker – ensure this is an opera that brings people something fresh and surprising which everyone can enjoy.

Jenny Miller, Artistic Director, kicked off the project with an extensive research and development project in 2018. She organised workshops to examine what it means to live on the South Coast today. The issues they discussed, the stories people told, and their dreams and aspirations all fed into the opera’s development. 

The characters are not unlike people you may have met in local pubs

The plot centres on an action-packed day of festivities organised to impress the judges of a national regeneration competition. The day doesn’t run smoothly, and scenes of hilarity, drug-taking, liberation, corruption and marital disharmony ensure that this is a fictional story through which truths about life in a seaside town (and maybe Britain as a whole) can be revealed. Barefoot Opera say that “In these post-Brexit times, and now with the pandemic, you could say this really is an opera for our times.” 

Last year, with the pandemic, things more or less ground to a halt, but the project is being revived this year with additional involvement from Jill Fricker, local poet and fundraiser, Patron, Andrew Corbett-Nolan and local organisations such as Eggtooth. 

As the project has evolved in the shadow of Covid, it’s become more focused on ‘wellbeing’. Alongside the opera is a wide-ranging and inclusive outreach project that brings the joy of singing and music-making to hundreds of local people, partner organisations, schools and charities including marginalised groups. 

According to Jenny: “If anything, the lockdown has made this project even more relevant. A growing body of evidence highlights the many positive impacts singing can have on physical and mental well-being. The connectivity and uplifting qualities of weekly singing – even online – cannot be underestimated.”

Poppy Martin in the Bloom Britannia film
PICTURE: Janet Hodgson

Want to find out more? The film on 18th February features interviews with some of the professional singers and chorus members, including Poppy Martin (now 11 years old) and her mum, Rosie Freund (also taking part), as well as Paul Toon, a client of The Seaview Project in Hastings.

As restrictions meant it wasn’t possible to film people together, participants were asked to sing some of their favourite extracts whilst going about their daily lives instead – in their gardens, or out and about in Hastings, St. Leonards and Bexhill. Janet also interviewed them to find out how they feel about taking part in the project.  

It takes a town to make an opera: Bloom Britannia is on Isolation Station Hastings on Thursday 18th February 2021 at 6.00pm.

Check the Barefoot Opera website for details of how to join the project, or email [email protected] for an information pack.

• Watch the premiere on Facebook here

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