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
When he was king: Muhammad Ali training in 'I Am Ali'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Arts and Entertainment
Scare tactics: Michael Palin and Jodie Comer in ‘Remember Me’

TVReview: Remember Me, BBC1
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Will there ever be a Friends reunion?
TV
News
Harry Hill plays the Professor in the show and hopes it will help boost interest in science among young people
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
A Van Gogh sold at Sotheby’s earlier this month
art
Arts and Entertainment

MusicThe band accidentally called Londoners the C-word

Arts and Entertainment
It would 'mean a great deal' to Angelina Jolie if she won the best director Oscar for Unbroken

Film 'I've never been comfortable on-screen', she says

Arts and Entertainment
Winnie the Pooh has been branded 'inappropriate' in Poland
books
Arts and Entertainment
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
American singer, acclaimed actor of stage and screen, political activist and civil rights campaigner Paul Robeson (1898 - 1976), rehearses in relaxed mood at the piano.
filmSinger, actor, activist, athlete: Paul Robeson was a cultural giant. But prejudice and intolerance drove him to a miserable death. Now his story is to be told in film...
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
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.

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

    Christmas Appeal

    Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
    Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

    Is it always right to try to prolong life?

    Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

    What does it take for women to get to the top?

    Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
    Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

    Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

    Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
    French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

    French chefs campaign against bullying

    A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

    Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

    Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
    Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

    Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

    Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
    Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

    Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

    Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
    Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

    Paul Scholes column

    I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
    Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

    So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game