Errollyn Wallen: Explosive stuff

Covent Garden's A Nitro at the Opera is a welcome celebration of black opera composers. But Errollyn Wallen has always defied such pigeonholing, she tells Michael Church
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We all know that opera, if it is to survive, must engage with reality, and that education and "outreach" are systematically marginalised by the custodians of the shrine. Battersea Arts Centre's Jerry Springer extravanganza represents one way out of this seeming impasse; Graham Vick's leisure-centre experiments in Birmingham are another. On Sunday, the Royal Opera House will blaze a trail, together with its partner-company Nitro, with an audience-participation performance of the world's first black opera - Scott Joplin's Treemonisha - plus a plethora of specially commissioned short operas by black British composers. It should be an interesting day.

One of those operas is by a composer now emerging as a doughty populariser, in the best sense of that word: Errollyn Wallen's activities span everything from high art to club culture, but she has never lost sight of first principles. "I'm here today," she told a press conference recently, "because of the music lessons I had in my primary school in Tottenham, because of the singing we did every day, because of a piano that happened to be at my house, and because of a wonderful teacher who taught us all to read music without our even realising it."

Errollyn Wallen turns up for our interview in an ancient, white Karman Ghia, designer-chic garb, and an auburn Afro cloud. Beneath the soft-spoken diffidence, you sense an unshakeable poise. Born in Belize, she came to London when she was two, and, though brought up by her Belizean uncle and aunt - her parents were mostly in New York - she is "English-British" through and through. Music ran in the family: her father composed and was a talented singer in the Bing Crosby/Nat King Cole mode; her brother Byron Wallen is a trumpeter who has just won the BBC Jazz Innovation award.

Errollyn's first musical training was on the violin, but she was so terrible, she says, "that if that had been the only instrument I learnt, I wouldn't be a musician now". She can't remember the process of learning to play the piano, but it seems to have been painless. "Our piano had come with a stool full of music, and I played it all, from Bach preludes and fugues to Gracie Fields." She also went to ballet lessons from the age of five: "I loved it, partly because of the music, but my first ambition was to be a dancer. My aunt and uncle said that they hadn't heard of any black ballet dancers, so they did their best to dissuade me from that." It was only when she was 18, after spending a summer with the Dance Theatre of Harlem, that she finally accepted that her destiny lay in music tout court.

As a teenager, she began writing music, and was told by a teacher that she'd better become a composer, because there weren't many woman composers. "But I had no conception of how you went about it. I'd read about how Schumann and Ravel learnt their craft by copying out scores, so I started doing that. But even then, I had a sense of what I might do. That phrase about the danger of not seeing the wood for the trees constantly echoed in my head, and I was determined not to lose sight of the wood."

Doing a music degree at Goldsmiths, she conceived "a real love" for Boulez, Cage, and all the contemporary composers around at the time. But going on to study under the composer Nicola LeFanu - who preached the doctrines of the Second Viennese School - Wallen found she'd come to a parting of the ways. "I loved Webern's Concerto for Nine Instruments - I could feel the Mozart in it - and I loved Berg's Lyric Suite. And in my own modest way, I could compose in the 12-note style. I enjoyed it, it was like a game, playing with numbers and shapes, but I found it too easy. I thought it was more interesting to start composing without knowing where you were going, letting intuition guide you."

"I remember Nicola asking, 'How can you just pluck notes out of the air?'. And I replied, 'Because that's where they belong'. I remember going to see her when she was writing an opera, and on her manuscript paper, the bars were already all marked in, all the same size. That shocked me. How could she be sure she mightn't want to put a lot of notes into some of them? Writing music, for her, was a cerebral thing."

Meanwhile, the music Wallen was writing for herself was coming out very differently: with tunes. She wrote a string quartet drawing on the hymns she'd sung at school, "and I was worried because that sort of thing was not allowed". This was in the early Eighties, when tunelessness was de rigueur. Her instinctive rebellion meant she wasn't caught in the trap in which many other composers foundered at that time: "I've met quite a few, since, who say they felt strangled by the prevailing expectations, by the fact that they couldn't write the way they wanted. To me, that disapproval was a small price to pay, because writing music is so hard, if you're not writing what you want, there's no point." In Wallen's view, her tutors were trying to go against nature. "The Viennese techniques were great, but they were an artificial implant. I had to write out of my English schooling, and out of my Anglican religious tradition. You have to write from where you are."

Her multifarious activities over the past 20 years have made that "where you are" rather hard to pin down. Her compositions are nothing if not eclectic, with the most effective being a percussion concerto that operates on a big canvas with a very sure touch. But she's also a veteran of the comedy circuit, having started out providing musical interludes for Rory Bremner and co. And she has developed a solo act as a singer-pianist, delivering her songs in a confidentially smoky timbre, over her own piano accompaniment. She's a great duettist and chamber player, notably with Ensemble X, a group she formed under the motto: "We don't break down barriers - we don't see any."

She'll have no truck with crossover, a word she regards as meaningless. "Real musicians have never lived in a world of compartmentalisation. There should be a joyfulness in music-making that is the complete antithesis of that." Class barriers, she thinks, are less of an obstacle than is often made out: "Through film and TV, classical music crosses all social boundaries anyway." But what does she feel when she looks at the 99 per cent whiteness of the average concert audience? "I'm not happy about that." After a pause, she continues: "It starts in infancy. Black children are still being told not to step out of their box. Unfortunately, it's very easy to talk a young child out of doing something they want to do, to persuade them it's not for them." Then she widens the argument, to rail against the paucity of music provision in schools today. "Because it isn't there any more, we've lost a whole generation of musicians, from right across society. That makes me very angry."

Wallen's opera to be unveiled on Sunday - all 20 minutes of it - is entitled Another America: Earth. "The idea germinated while I was at an artists' colony in America, and met a painter who was copying American 19th-century landscape painters, but reworking them in lurid colours, and adding in details that weren't in the originals - a lynching, say, or some other racial cruelty." The piece is apparently set in Grapes of Wrath territory, and somehow also weaves in the discovery of planet Pluto. But it's only a beginning: she plans to build on it further, for a new commission for Sadler's Wells next year.

In the meantime, she is returning to Belize - "I've begun to realise that its lush beauty is still lurking in me, influencing what I do." But when she gets back into her little white car, it's off to a club in Birmingham, where she'll deliver some songs including her jazzy take on an aria from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

A Nitro at the Opera starts on Sunday at 1pm, at the Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000); free, but booking of entrance is advisable