This week, our GCSE Latin group were very fortunate to have been involved in an exciting project led by Professor Fiona Macintosh at the University of Oxford, and a team of musicians, directors and composers. The project involved a workshop at Cheney on Tuesday 7th June, followed by a special invitation to a performance at St Hilda’s College between 5 and 6pm on Wednesday 8th June.
Professor Fiona Macintosh introduces the project below:
“This project brings together creative artists, Oxford researchers and students from the Cheney to develop a new 90-minute opera entitled The Alternative Queen’s Speech, based on Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005), by composer, Cheryl Frances-Hoad and opera director/librettist, Jeanne Pansard-Besson. The Alternative Queen’s Speech, like Atwood’s novella, turns the canonical narrative of Homer’s Odyssey upside down: Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, traditionally the model of marital fidelity and patient endurance, is given the chance to offer her side of the story from the underworld.
The first aria for the new opera was commissioned earlier last year from the National Opera Studio (https://www.nationaloperastudio.org.uk/1242-asphodel), and a preliminary workshop has already taken place in Oxford in preparation for the proposed. From Monday 6 June to Wednesday 8 June, the composer, director/librettist and one singer together with researchers from Classics and Music developed the next stage in the collaborative project in the Jacqueline du Pre Music Building at St Hilda’s College, Oxford.”
At the workshop, students were able to hear an excerpt of the opera, and then to ask questions of the composer, director and one of the singers. Students were reminded of the story of Penelope in Homer’s Odyssey, and introduced to Margaret Atwood’s retelling of the tale from Penelope’s perspective. Students had lots of questions about how the story was being told, as well as ideas on how it might develop. They were curious about the choice of song, the staging, and the way in which the story might be told. They were also able to rehearse a reading on behalf of the slave women who were killed by Odysseus and Telemachus towards the end of the Odyssey.
The following afternoon, students were welcomed to the St Hilda’s auditorium, where they were able to watch a stunningly beautiful performance, featuring two singers, a reader, a pianist, and a weaver on stage, telling the story from Penelope’s perspective, with readings from the Penelopiad and Homer’s Odyssey. Towards the end, they all read their chorus lines by the slave women to finish the performance. This was followed by drinks and a chance to ask some questions informally of the singers, director and composer.
We are enormously grateful to have been involved in such an innovative project, and such a moving performance.