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
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tvReview: Bread-making skills of the Bake Off hopefuls put to the test
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home