Yes: From total discord to sweet harmony

Bonnie Greer's television run-in with Nick Griffin didn't just provoke feverish debate – it was also the catalyst for a new opera

It is not every day that the words of the philosopher John Stuart Mill are sung at the Royal Opera House. "The peculiar evil of silencing the expression of an opinion is that it is robbing the human race... of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth." This stance is at the heart of Yes, the new opera by composer Errollyn Wallen and author Bonnie Greer, inspired by the latter's controversial 2009 appearance on BBC TV's Question Time alongside the leader of the British National Party. The world premiere takes place tonight at ROH2, Covent Garden's Linbury Studio.

Don't expect to see Nick Griffin on stage, though. Although Yes has been described as a "docu-opera", there's nothing literal about it. It is based not on the panel discussion itself, but on the two weeks leading up to the event, when Greer found herself the focus of attention that brought forward a kaleidoscope of different and impassioned viewpoints. For Greer as a playwright and an immigrant from the US, all this represented more than the sum of its parts, she says; it was a journey through an iconic moment that she felt she needed to process into a creative work.

But why an opera? "On the day, while I was on the panel, most of the session was given to the politicians and the audience, so I had time to observe," says Greer. "And I felt that the audience, who were really the stars of the show, were not so much making political points as seeking to express their emotions about the whole situation of this country. You could feel they wanted to go on record as having been there to say what they had to say. Couple that with what was going on in the newspapers beforehand, and that's what this is really about: the atmosphere of the UK right before Question Time.

"I was convinced it was something for an opera house, not a musical. It's about what people felt at the base of their being: how they saw themselves, how they saw their country. Whether one agreed with that or not was irrelevant; it was about the emotion. To express emotion – that's the realm of opera."

Greer took her idea to Deborah Bull, creative director of ROH2 (the arm of the Royal Opera House devoted to new works and partnerships) and the company teamed her up with the composer Errollyn Wallen, who was born in Belize, grew up in Tottenham and is now one of British contemporary music's most eclectic and persuasive communicators. This is Greer's first venture into opera, but Wallen's 11th. And it is the first time that two black women have been commissioned to create a new work together for the Royal Opera House.

"I think that's a serious breakthrough," says Greer. "Hopefully it's a message to all communities that the opera is not a white, male, elitist thing and that in this opera they're seeing themselves on the stage. I hope they begin to see opera as something actively to create, something in which they can express themselves." Wallen has a different take: "It's a shame in a way that we have to remark upon it at all," she says. "It doesn't matter what colour we are: in this opera we're debating universal issues."

The opera's characters are fictitious, but represent some of the opinions Greer encountered during the run-up to the programme. Among them are a middle-class black family, a white East Ender who worries over his grandson's future, an Asian city high-flier, a white pensioner with a cat and a Muslim teacher of UK history who discovers that the only thing that can be called truly indigenous to Britain is oats.

Greer and Wallen have aimed to get under the skins of all these characters and present each of them with empathy – so there is not one story but many, evoked in a mosaic of short scenes and choruses. "That's exciting for me, as well as a challenge in terms of structure," says Wallen. "It's my mission to find stories that are relevant to our own time and to place on the stage the people that we see around us. It has to be that way."

But neither writer nor composer was remotely tempted to make an operatic character out of Griffin. "I wouldn't want to watch anyone put the BNP to music," Greer declares. "And as a writer I couldn't inhabit the space that he lives in. I couldn't stand outside and pretend that I understood and could empathise with what he's about. I couldn't do that creatively, and I didn't think it'd be very interesting either."

And the title? "Yes" was of course Greer's response to the invitation from Question Time, but it's also a plain, powerful affirmation that by accepting she did the right thing. "I lost friends over it," she admits. "People were telling me you shouldn't share a platform with the BNP, but my feeling was that this is a nation of free speech. As long as someone isn't advocating violence or murder, people have the right to speak and to say what they believe. It was interesting to hear people for whom I had enormous respect intellectually arguing against a person being able to speak – I found that quite shocking.

"Any organisation or group of people that prevents others from expressing a legitimate opinion, whether in print or in person, are absolute enemies of democracy," she continues. "That's the reason I said yes. I'm the daughter of a man who grew up under racial segregation and couldn't speak, so there's no way I'm going to be part of anything that won't allow a person to speak his or her mind. I think some of the great and the good were upset that I did this – and they were even more upset that it turned out to be OK. This is about freedom of speech and expression; about saying yes to the tumultuous nature of democracy."

And by bringing such fundamental contemporary issues to the operatic stage, can Greer and Wallen open up the art form to people who might otherwise hesitate to try it? That is certainly part of Wallen's aim. "I do feel things have been a bit hidebound by the powers-that-be," she says. "To try to understand the rapidly changing world we live in, not all things that are out there are brought into our halls when they could be. And there should be no apology for opera. It's a living tradition that reflects so much and brings together words, music, dance, costume – you can tell any story within that form, with any sort of music. I love writing opera and I want to write more and more."

'Yes', Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) to 26 November

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there