Dead Equal – Opera Honours the Unsung Female Heroes of War
When you think of a soldier what do you see?
Women remain the unsung heroes of the British Army, and now Dead Equal, a new opera is giving them their voice.
This pioneering production is being brought to the Fringe by Palmer & Hall and is part of the Army@TheFringe programme in association with Summerhall.
It weaves together gripping testimonies from contemporary servicewomen of the royal army medical corps with the largely untold story of Flora Sandes and Emily Simmonds; volunteer nurses who together saved thousands of lives on the Balkan Front in World War I.
When instructed to retreat with medical staff, Flora instead joined the Serbian Allied Army, becoming the only British woman who officially served as a soldier in World War I – rising to the rank of captain and being decorated seven times.
Dead Equal, which runs from 2 to 25 August, combines the voices of women across time to ask what it means to be a soldier, a medic, and a woman, celebrating the disruptive power of a female identity forged in blood and sweat.
Dead Equal is written by Lila Palmer with music by Rose Miranda Hall and directed by Miranda Cromwell. The production also features the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
The timing of the piece is significant. The British Army began accepting women into full combat roles in 2016, a century after Flora Sandes won Serbia’s highest military decoration, The Order of the Karadorde’s Star, after being wounded in battle. And 2019 is the operational year in which employment across all branches of the military will be determined solely by ability.
- Venue: Army@TheFringe (in association with Summerhall), Hepburn House, 89 East Claremont Street, EH7 4HU (Venue 210)
- Dates: 2-25 August(not 5th, 11th, 17th, 18th or 19th)
- Time: 19:00
- Duration: 60 mins
- Ticket prices: £12 (£9.50)
- Box office:org/dead-equal
- Advisory: Ages 14+
By Lila Palmer, Writer of Dead Equal
What was the inspiration for the work?
The inspiration for the work was the public conversation around the entry of women into full combat roles in the British Army in 2016. We noticed that the coverage was focussed on how ground breaking it was to have women in full combat roles, and there was lots of complaint about the lethality of the army being compromised by allowing women into these positions, physical differences, operational concerns, many of which were significant but solvable problems. But underneath there was this palpable flavour to a lot of the reporting that implied it was somehow an inherent contradiction to be a woman and a soldier. Something to do with making and taking life I would suspect. Way too much power in one female vessel! I work a lot in my practice now with analysis and inversion of female archetypes in opera (in fact my next project is specifically on that topic) and so I was intrigued by this instinctive resistance to women warriors. Rose (the composer) & I were aware of Flora Sandes, who was this decorated veteran from World War I, who’d fought with great bravery & won many promotions in 1916, and we thought, ‘if she was doing this then, in that restrictive time, there can’t be anything operationally insurmountable about this question and secondly we wondered, who are her heirs today?’ And as soon as we started digging and I started researching not just the British army but every force that had become fully equal opportunity; I discovered that long before 2016, women were already operating in frontline combat contexts, already even in an offensive capacity (there were female fire support artillery officers in the 90s in the British army); but the recognition wasn’t there, the visibility wasn’t there. So it became, as we worked, not about persuasion but about recognition.
What kind of wider impact in terms of conversations do you hope the work will produce?
I think people will resonate with different aspects of it. You know one of the challenges of making a show about the army when you’re not on their payroll is trust. The army as an institution is insular because it must trust its own, and it must protect its own because they’re in life and death situations and that bonds them. And that can also cause significant problems as far as reform and calling out bad behaviour. But unlike the US Army, the UK Army is not well supported by the general public. In fact almost female every soldier under thirty five we spoke to, if you found them on social media, you wouldn’t know they were in the military, because they’ve been advised they will be attacked. I have no horse in this race as it were, there’s no military background in my family. But for me there’s something hugely hypocritical about a society that says, ‘I accept your protection and my taxes are going to pay for your work that sometimes means killing on my behalf, but I’m going to judge and ostracise you for it. I’m going to blame the sins of government on its instrument even though I know that individually, you are a servant.’ So I hope to kind of challenge unthinking liberal judgement of what the military is. But, and this is a big but, there are huge points of moral conflict for soldiers, and especially medics. Our show is about a period pair of nurses, one of whom becomes a soldier, and contemporary army medics. Now at the basis of medicine, of the Hippocratic Oath, is to do no harm. Only to heal, never to hurt. But a soldier medic or doctor is expected to be a soldier first and a medic second, to follow operational orders before the needs of the individual patient, sometimes to withhold care from a patient because a military hospital is dedicated to caring for first responders for example, not for civilians. All the medics we interviewed at some point expressed deep conflict between those roles. And there are so many internal conflicts these women have to juggle. Being mothers and being absent from the children they adore. Maintaining relationships when women are still expected to be in a backstop role in society but operational requirements preclude that (maybe that’s a good thing!) And the women themselves are just strong and confident and direct. They don’t complain about those things. But they’re there. There’s so much in this show. About different models of leadership and even what being a woman looks like. So I hope maybe people get stuck on one of those questions. We certainly don’t answer them!
How far does the content of the work influence your dramaturgical process? (or – what is the relationship between form and content?)
Well I’m primarily a librettist and secondarily a playwright and screenwriter although I’ve done all those things the main focus of my practice has been opera. So the main difference between an opera and a play text or even a book in a musical is primacy of text. Which is to say, the librettist is the architect. I write a play, like a huge block of marble and then I chip away until all that’s left is bones with a structure that suggests the musical shape. And then the composer writes the music, and then we refine, refine, refine. I think the second big difference is that in theatre and music theatre the interpretive artist has a high degree of control over the line reading. But in an opera, the composer gives the line reading, by tessitura, rhythmic spacing, tempo etc. you essentially know what perspective you are supposed to take as the artist from score details, and then you choose to fight or lean in. This piece has had an interesting life in that it was always intended to be an opera but from the outset has included quite a lot of dialogue as well, including a final spoken section. I had concerns about that, because the ear can find it difficult to adjust between the extremity of text sung in a highly refined operatic way versus dialogue with underscore; and the heightened emotion of sung sections has to be managed very mindfully or you get odd sags in energy. Plus operatic time and spoken time are obviously different- there are real shifts in the dramaturgic pacing of both forms, with different rules. You have to be so conscious of these things or they can trip you up. But after some trial and error I realised both stories interwoven in Dead Equal are operatic in their extremity and also require moments of high speed interaction that are best conveyed through dialogue; so I made my peace with using both in an intuitive way. I like the balance we’ve struck, there’s quite a fluid blend, rather than a formalised movement between forms to reflect particular concerns or shifts of time for example, which we did consider.
How does this show relate to your usual process or content?
Truthfully this opera was written outrageously quickly in the end. Given that it normally takes years to write an opera and a long refining and workshopping process before a first premier. When the opportunity to present at Army at the Fringe came up in 2017 for 2018 we told them to give us an extra year to fundraise and do research with their people. And even then expanding a 20 minute show (which is what we first made in 2016 and the army saw) to the 60 minutes folks in Edinburgh will hear is a tall order in the time. It’s the first time I’m ever expanded an existing piece and the first time I’ve had a huge input of research information late in process. So it’s been very unusual in that way. But Rose and I felt very strongly that we didn’t want to make an opera ‘at’ army women but with them, and do as much listening as we could. And that meant a lot of change and late nights and restructuring material much later than normal because we couldn’t get access early in process. I’m a singer by training as well as a writer for stage, so I usually spend a lot of time in a traditional process in a first production rehearsal tweaking for the singers, trying to make their lives easier or plot points clearer by small adjustments in text and music. This process has been different because we had about 60% of the score when we did the final vocal workshop, and then we didn’t get to check the pacing of the final 40% with singers before we recorded full parts with the Band of the Royal Regiment of Scotland. So we’ve had less wiggle room for adjustment in process. But obviously it’s been tremendous to have a cued orchestral recording for the premier because it’s enabled us to cast truly operatic voices and it’s the first time the army have ever collaborated on an opera. Plus we have such incredibly versatile performers and such an unusually flat structured, collaborative creative team that we’ve been finding inventive solutions to those unusual parameters in rehearsal and that has resulted in some incredible additions to the show, particularly in the finale. It’s basically been completely different from a normal opera process, but every person in the team was so invested everyone has remained flexible and responsive. It’s astonishing really, the process has been much more like a theatre process, in that opera rooms usually have too many attached structures to be that flexible. And of course, we have Miranda Cromwell directing, who is tremendously generous in process.
What makes you want to make theatre rather than another art?
Humans need shared experiences. To breathe together and watch together. I really believe that’s incredibly important, even more so now. So why theatre not going to the cinema? Well I’d say why music drama? Because even my straight plays utilise music. Martin Luther said music falls directly into the soul. I think that’s true. A human voice singing something haunting bypasses the intellect entirely, and I think especially the British as a nation, sometimes we need to be taken out of our heads into a feeling space. For me opera remains the first total art form, it’s combines all the other forms in a similar way to film, so it can have that absolutely overwhelming impact, but on top of that, opera deals with the unamplified human voice (and our singers are not amplified though our orchestra is). The operatic voice at its best is a heart cry. Totally primal. That’s why people become opera junkies. The operatic voice is totally overwhelming in the best way. It literally changes the chemicals in your body. And, I should say, and I really mean this, we use it responsibly. The power and fragility of those voices on audiences has to be respected. This opera, I would like to stress, is not misogynistic or abusive of the audience or the singers. And we don’t get off on the ritual killing of the soprano either.
Is theatre – and the Fringe – a good place to provoke conversations?
Yes, yes and yes. Opera, certainly grand opera is a less reactive form than theatre simply because it takes longer to do well from scratch. But yes. I think we’re living in a time where as artists it’s not good enough to just make ego work, of work that confirms the choices of the past, that doesn’t interrogate the society we’ve been. I think there’s a lot of celebration of the increasing representation of women and minority ethnic and queer people in culture and more broadly and it’s a great start. But we still, culturally, haven’t wrapped our heads around the fact that most of our great cultural products, opera, theatre, or even social institutions, are the product of an oppressive, exploitative past. And that we can’t even talk about the past anymore without acknowledging that. It might be terribly unfashionable to say this but if I didn’t think art could change the world I’d do something else. And I believe we’re coming to a time where audiences themselves will say ‘I’m not interested in your play featuring three straight white men congratulating themselves for building an institution on the backs of slaves and not acknowledging that’ or, ‘actually no I’m not going to another opera where a woman’s only choices are madness, sexual violence or death.’ And they will vote with their feet. And It’s frightening as a freelance artist to take on the power of established interests, because those established interests are still in power. Nothing much has shifted behind the scenes. But the reality is we have to take every opportunity to speak our truth, with fierce commitment to artistic excellence and I think, beauty. And I think a Fringe offers an opportunity for exactly that kind of work, and for work in a mould that doesn’t exist yet, because it’s new and needed and there’s no model yet, to find its way, and its audience.
Lila said: “Women like Flora Sandes used their privilege and strength of character to challenge the rules society enforced.
“Working class, queer and women of colour have different experiences in the same circumstances than affluent white women because of responses to their combined identities.
“In the opera I wanted to explore how women negotiate those differences of experience in the extremity of a theatre of war and form relationships across them.”
She added: “Knowing that others have changed the rules before gives successors strength to break down boundaries in the present. When the press went nuts on the Army gender issue in 2016, right when Rose had come to me with Flora’s biography, I just went, ‘How is this argument happening when she already existed?’
“But of course if no one knows she did… the more research I did the more I realised British women were already operating in combat situations as soldiers under other roles, and a lot of the tabloid rhetoric just didn’t reflect current reality, before the changes were even implemented.
“We didn’t set out with an agenda to convince people gender equality in the army was a good idea. It just turns out that showing what already is and has been is a powerful argument.”
Flora will be played by gender queer feminist Canadian soprano Teiya Kasahara, who is delighted to be part of an opera that presents women in groundbreaking roles.
Teiya (who uses the them/they pronoun) said: “One of the reasons Dead Equal is so exciting is that women are so often only portrayed as victims, and all the more so in war and especially in opera as a genre. But here we have a woman who was triumphant, who broke boundaries and was accepted in a highly unusual role in an era that was so restrictive.”
Female-led company Palmer & Hall create roles and stories that confound expectations of the opera genre, platforming concealed stories and expanding the vision of who opera is made by and for.
Lila said: “We believe this piece and this team are what the future of opera should look like. Miranda Cromwell has led the way in British Theatre in directing the work of diverse female voices, from touring India with Half Breed to her sold out all-black Death of a Salesman with Marianne Elliot to her work with Talawa.
“Simone Ibbet-Brown (Jo) co-founded Hera, which campaigns for greater diversity in opera, and Teiya is a one-person powerhouse creator-performer. We love the fact that every artist associated with this production has stood up and been counted in the fight to make their corner of the arts a truly representative space as well as being capable of delivering the highest standards of artistic excellence.”
Tickets include admission to Live Equal, a portrait exhibit by acclaimed photographer Wolf James. Design is by Anna Driftmier.
– Ends –
About Teiya Kasahara
Teiya Kasahara is a queer, Nikkei-Canadian, gender non-binary opera singer, multi-disciplinary creator, teacher, and producer. With Japanese and German heritage, Teiya comes from a background of over 12 years of professional stage experience as a coloratura soprano in various operas across North America and Europe including Rosina/The Barber of Seville (Teplice, CZ) and Olympia/The Tales of Hoffman (Edmonton Opera). Recently praised as “a force of nature” (Toronto Star), and as a “magnetic performer” singing with “a dynamic mix of sweetness undercut by strength” (Opera Canada) for their portrayal of Solana/When the Sun Comes Out, Canada’s first lesbian opera at the Queer Arts Festival in 2013, and Toronto’s World Pride in 2014. Their “impeccable and effortless” (Review Vancouver) Queen of the Night/The Magic Flute has already been seen across Canada (Vancouver Opera, Edmonton Opera, Opera Kitchener & Highlands Music Festival) and in Europe (Prague, Teplice, Opéra de Toulon, & Essen). More recently they have moved into the dramatic coloratura soprano repertoire adding Lady Macbeth/Macbeth (Opera Niagara), Fata Morgana/The Love of Three Oranges (Aalto-Musiktheater Essen), and Donna Elvira/Don Giovanni (Westben & Music Niagara) to their repertoire.
In Toronto Teiya has worked extensively with the Canadian Opera Company as both an Ensemble Studio Artist from 2007-2010 and since then as a guest artist, including Echo/Ariadne auf Naxos, Frasquita/Carmen, and Lucy/The Telephone. They also performed with Theatre Gargantua (Raging Dreams: into the visceral; The Wager), National Ballet of Canada, Tapestry Opera (Opera Briefs; Tap This; Hope/Shelter), Opera 5 (Offenbach/Hahn), and with Against the Grain Theatre in their highly acclaimed portrayal as Bino/Figaro’s Wedding.
Alongside their life-long passion for the art of bel canto singing, Teiya’s new found desires are to revolutionize and queer the operatic form. Having premiered their first ever opera-inspired theatre piece entitled The Queen In Me (Buddies in Bad Times Theatre 2017) directed by Andrea Donaldson, and currently in development with the support of Theatre Gargantua’s SideStream Cycle and the new collective Amplified Opera, where Teiya shares the position of Co-Artistic Director with director/producer/writer Aria Umezawa. Recent performances of The Queen In Me have included Tapestry Opera and SummerWorks Open Studio, Friday Night Live at the ROM, and most recently at Vancouver’s Queer Arts Festival. Their new work, YORU / The Queer of the Night is also in development with both companies.
Exciting collaborations include Raging Asian Women (RAW) Taiko Drummers (Crooked Lines 2016), and Wolastoq composer/vocal artist Jeremy Dutcher on his debut album Wolastoqiyik Lintuwakonawa (Polaris Prize 2018, Juno Award Winner 2019). Teiya also joins RAW as an apprentice since November 2017 and has already performed extensively in and around the Toronto area as a taiko drummer. From the new theatre collective Queer AF Collective, along with fellow artists Bilal Baig, François Macdonald and Sofía Rodríguez, their new work Undecided is currently in development with Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. This season Teiya takes part in Generator’s Artist-Producer Training Program. Other performances include collaborations with Soundstreams and FAWN Chamber Creative.
As an active voice teacher of all genres Teiya is the founder and head coach of the voice and wellness studio The Vocal Dōjō. For more information visit teiyakasahara.com or follow @teiyakasahara.
About Lila Palmer
Lila Palmer is an Anglo-American libettist and producer committed to equal or female positive gender ratios in new writing. She is committed to challenging narratives of violence towards women in opera. Recent commissions include These Wandering Stones for Barbican Centre; an electronic promenade opera about the ethnic and social history of Smithfield Market which played to over-capacity audiences in May & June. Commissions include a children’s cantata for Liverpool Philharmonic, an opera with Aleksandra Vrebalov for American Lyric Theatre and a new song cycle for star South African Soprano Golda Schultz. You can find her vlog series (T/R)ough guides to female characters in opera at www.lilapalmer.com under THE ARCHETYPES PROJECT. Follow @librettistatlarge.
Lila was a co-founding member of social justice arts collective The Sounding Board in 2011 (working with the UN on the Rio +20 Song initative); and has consulted for emerging arts organisations on diverse recruitment practices including Four Corners Ensemble; Arts for Change, Helios, Chicago Midsummer Opera, Fujit Productions, workshOpera, and top US & UK classical music institutions and individuals. She made her presenting debut (June 2019) as host for Medici TV at the International Tchaikovsky Voice Competition in St. Petersburg, Russia. As a writer and dramaturg she has worked with organisations including Helios Collective, Wigmore Hall, Boston Opera Collaborative, workshOpera, The Nielsen Competition, Roman River Festival, Bethlem Gallery, The Museum of London, New Camerata Opera, Trebah Gardens, GMSD, Tapestry Opera and others.
- Army@TheFringe is presented by The Army in association with Summerhall. Summerhall is working with the Army to present a diverse programme of performances that tell stories of life in and out of uniform.
- Facilities at Hepburn House will include the relaxed and comfortable Mess Bar plus an Army Tuckshop.
- Summerhall is at 1 Summerhall, Edinburgh, EH9 1PL. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
- Details of all the shows can be found online at summerhall.co.uk