Emily – an Opera

To coincide with the centenary of the death of suffragette Emily Wilding Davison (1872-1913) comes the premiere of a new opera by composer Tim Benjamin.

Emily Davison was one of the more radical figures of the suffragette movement, who often undertook violent direct action against the Government independently of her cohorts in the movement.  She died on 8 June 1913, at Epsom race course, following head injuries sustained after she was hit by a galloping horse owned by the King. The nature of her protest on Derby Day and the circumstances of her death have been the subject of much discussion and speculation, recently examined in a fascinating and very poignant television programme presented by Clare Balding.

I asked Tim Benjamin to explain the inspiration behind his new opera, and how he organised the source material into a libretto and score.

What inspired you to write an opera based on the life and activities of Emily Wilding Davison?

I was driving back from a weekend away and heard a programme about a plaque being put into a cupboard in Parliament by Tony Benn. It was a memorial to a Suffragette who hid there on the night of the Census in 1911, with the aim of being discovered and it being recorded in the Census that a woman was living in Parliament. This was Emily Davison, and she was successful – you can to this day read her name in the Census and address as “found hiding in crypt, Westminster Hall”. I thought this was a set-up with huge theatric potential – an policeman angrily questioning a locked cupboard with a bold and defiant voice answering! In researching Emily Davison I found out so much more about her and the Suffragettes that it soon became clear that this would be a much bigger piece than just one scene…

What were the special challenges/pleasures of telling her story in music and words?

The main challenge was indeed how to “tell the story”, and which other characters to introduce. All of the text comes from original sources that I found while researching – letters, newspapers, police reports, and more. The language of 100 years ago is still familiar, yet sufficiently different to have a distinctive pattern and rhythm, and one that I found much more suitable for my music than straightforward modern English (which, in general, I don’t like to set!). The libretto is quite allegorical, with single characters representing much bigger ideas; the only named character is Emily, and the others are figures such as The Doctor (representing the medical establishment), The Judge (the legal establishment), The Politician (the government), and The Reporter (the media). It was great fun fleshing out these characters and ideas, and also writing for a substantial chorus, at different times representing policemen, Suffragettes, and race-goers! Musically I have made a lot of use of leitmotifs as a way of suggesting the different agenda of each character, and certain ideas and subtexts that run throughout the opera.

The opera does not follow a straight historical narrative. Why did you choose to organise the material in a different way?

Given her famous death at the Epsom Derby, it would be difficult to aim for a straight narrative with any tension, as everyone would know the ending. In fact, the first half portrays Emily before the Derby, and recounts her various acts of protest, and culminates in a big re-enactment of “Black Friday”, when a Suffragette rally was attacked by the police and many were badly beaten (indeed, there were Suffragette deaths as a result). The Derby Day incident effectively takes place during the interval (!), and the second half begins immediately after the incident, set at Epsom. The second half deals more with the consequences of her actions.

Rebecca Lea as Emily
Rebecca Lea as Emily

What have been the particular challenges of mounting and directing this opera?

It has been hugely challenging. Writing it was almost the easy part, even though it took 2 years! Putting together sufficient funding (for which we are very grateful to the PRS for Music Foundation and the RVW Trust), and persuading many institutions to help us in kind (especially the Royal Northern College of Music) were both challenges; and on top there’s all the endless organising, the marketing, casting, costumes, construction…. some of those are a lot more fun than others! Directing the opera is relatively straightforward for me as I’ve obviously had a clear idea of what I’m after while I was writing it. The cast have been great in rehearsals with lots of contributions of their own, and it’s been so helpful that everyone has been so keen for the project to succeed – there is a lot of local involvement in it (the opera is on at the Hippodrome, Todmorden, West Yorkshire from 4th July for three nights), and more than a little civic pride!

For further information, and to book tickets, please go to www.emilyopera.co.uk

My Meet the Artist interview with Tim Benjamin


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