A few moments with Laura Bowler

At the CLF Art Cafe this Friday and Saturday, as well as new pieces by Peggy Polias and Igor Santos (and Anna Korsun’s Sottilissime for singing string trio) we will be bringing scenes from a new opera by the amazing Laura Bowler. Laura often works in music theatre, as both a composer and performer, and as the founder-director of Size Zero Opera. Many of her pieces put a contemporary spin on age-old themes: sex, violence, the natural world and, in the emoji-emblazoned FFF (heard first at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2017), political engagement. GOLD is a retelling of the Rumpelstiltskin story, written in collaboration with the librettist Alasdair Middleton, that teases twenty-first-century themes of language, identity, privilege and sexual politics out of its fairytale origins. In our concerts we will be giving the premiere of the opera’s first seven scenes, sung by Lucy Goddard, Rosie Middleton and Riot’s own Sarah Dacey. You can find more information and tickets here.

Laura found time amidst a busy week of rehearsals and other challenges to speak to us about her piece.

Laura Bowler (far left), rehearsing GOLD with Sarah Dacey, Lucy Goddard, and members of Riot Ensemble

Tim Rutherford-Johnson: How have you set about updating the story of Rumpelstiltskin, or adding a contemporary spin to it? What does an ancient fairytale like this have to say to the twenty-first century?

Laura Bowler: I have always had a fascination with fairytales. The tale of Rumpelstiltskin appealed to me because of its focus on naming the unknown, the misunderstood, the other. Whenever I heard conversations about Rumpelstiltskin, the title character always seemed to be presented and understood as the ‘evil’ one and the manipulator. There was very rarely any mention of the Father and the King, without whose power the tale surrounding the daughter’s deal with Rumpel would never have occurred. It is the socially legitimate and patriarchal powers in the narrative who place the daughter into her most vulnerable position. Rumpel is a desperate character who takes advantage of any given situation to gain what power he/she can. For me the story places a magnifying glass on society’s blind acceptance of seemingly legitimate power and our fear of those we do not know or understand. 

TR-J: I’m interested in the idea of naming – or name-calling – which is used as a framing device to the opera. At the start, Adam names all the animals but some, like Rumpelstiltskin, slip away, without names, from the dominion of man. And then in the final scene all sorts of slurs are used against him. What is your thinking here?

LB: I don’t want to put words into Alasdair’s mouth so I’ll answer this from my perspective. The Rumpelstiltskin phenomenon is the tendency for the naming of something to create the impression of imparting understanding of it. This is something which is perpetuated throughout society in today’s media. The idea of the ‘monster’ character in a story takes away any responsibility for what society may have created or been able to prevent. An individual is reported to be a Terrorist; they somehow become inherently bad. Naming something may give one a sense of owning that person or thing, and with that, an assumption that we somehow understand them/it. 

TR-J: A lot of your work deals with contemporary themes like this. What are the challenges of making work on such specific themes? And how do you avoid simply preaching ‘issues’ to an already informed, liberal audience?

LB: I have the dreaded artist’s guilt, which is what drives me to create work that is somehow politically or socially engaged. Composing is a form of communication, and for me I want to communicate and ask questions about what I personally feel is vital to humanity in contemporary society. I think it’s very easy to assume that it is an informed liberal audience, but I can’t imagine that everyone is in a constant state of self reflection ensuring that they are checking on any developed or developing bias that they may hold. I never try to preach with my work, but I value the role that the arts can play in the debates of a free democratic society. After all, politics in theatre is as old as democracy itself. 

TR-J: What are the advantages, to you, of working in music theatre? How is your identity as a performer – as well as a composer – tied into that?

LB: Performing enables me to create work that I may not feel is kind for me to create for other artists. I purposely push myself to extreme states as a performer inevitably causing certain psychological and physical repercussions. I thrive off collaborating with other artists, but I also work within a field that celebrates perfection and I am a performer that strives for rawness and vulnerability – something that is not always encouraged in western classical music teaching. Performing also enables me to be more empathetic to the individual performers that I collaborate with; to not just write works for the musician but to create works that also embrace who they are as a person and their experiences. Working in music theatre enables me to communicate more directly. Despite my love of more abstracted forms of communication, the inclusion of theatre, text, and the human body enables for a less intangible form of communication, and this is important for me as a creative at the moment.

TR-J: These performances will just be of scenes from GOLD. When can we see and hear the whole thing?

LB: Probably next season if all goes well! 

TR-J: Finally, what else are you working on at the moment? Are you still making work with Size Zero Opera?

LB: I’m working on several smaller scale works at the moment for a range of artists including Alwynne Pritchard, Scott Lygate and Platypus Ensemble (Vienna). Then I’ll be tying myself to the desk to write a new 50-minute multimedia music theatre work for HCMF for me to perform with Decoder Ensemble (Hamburg). The work is called Advert and explores the rise of tribalism within contemporary society. I’m super excited to be starting a new duo with the flautist Ruth Morley (Red Note Ensemble) and our tour of new commissions beginning next season. We’ve commissioned Dierdre McKay, Diana Soh and Carmel Smickersgill. Future collaborations include projects with Extinction Rebellion, Katie Mitchell and a monodrama that the incredible composer Diana Soh is writing for me. Unfortunately, due to sheer lack of time, Size Zero Opera has stopped commissioning work. However, if the right project came along I’m always happy to put my producer hat on.

TR-J: Thank you for talking to us Laura! I cannot wait to hear GOLD this weekend.