Brand new queer opera examines public shaming

#echochamber is a new Anglo-Icelandic opera about sexism and shaming on social media.

Ísabella Leifsdóttir is the shows producer and one of the singers.

The opera comes from the music theater group Aequitas Collective in collaboration with Folk Opera Iceland. The shows producer and one of the singers is Ísabella Leifsdóttir who says that it was not until they were well into rehearsals that the creators realized that it was in a way a queer opera.
“This is the first Icelandic opera that has queer protagonists,” Ísabella explains. “We didn’t really realize that until after we started rehearsals, when we were discussing the piece with an outsider. One of the protagonists is a lesbian and another one is bisexual, but we didn’t start out with the idea of making the piece queer. We just never thought about it in those terms as the ensemble is to a large extent queer.”

The music is written by the english composer Michael Betteridge and the lyrics by Ingunn Lára Kristjánsdóttir who is also the director. There are four singers: Ísabella, Rosie Middelton, Jónína Björt Gunnarsdóttir and Ívar Helgason and the pianist is Matthildur Anna Gísladóttir. Michael, Rosie and Ísabella all studied at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, and have known each other for quite a while.

“Is there in fact any difference between how queers and women are treated in Iceland compared to Britain?”

“Rosie specializes in singing contemporary opera and Michael has written quite a few operas so they are used to working together,” says Ísabella. “One time when they were rehearsing another opera they started talking about the status of queer people in Britain versus in other countries of the world and Rosie starts talking about Iceland which according to research is the best place to be for queer people and women. That’s how they got the idea to examine what that means in reality. Is there in fact any difference between how queers and women are treated in Iceland compared to Britain?

They contacted me and asked if I was willing to produce the piece and sing in it. I said yes and we started by having a workshop here in Iceland where we worked on creating the opera. We advertised the workshop, saying only that we wanted to examine the difference between how minority groups, especially queer people and women are treated in those two countries.”

#echochamber will premier in Tjarnarbíó in Reykjavík on May 25th.

One of the applicants for the workshop was Ingunn Lára and it was she who introduced the team to the idea of examining public shaming on social media.
“We thought that was a great idea,” Ísabella says. “And that was our starting point when we started creating the #echochamber. We sat down and started to look at disgusting tweets and improvised around them. At the end of the worshop we had a performance where we showed what we had accomplished. That performance was recorded and judging by that performance the Icelandic Arts Council gave us a grant to produce the opera.”

Did you come to any conclusion about whether it’s better to be queer in Iceland than it is in Britain?
“No, I can’t say that we have reached any conclusion,” says Ísabella. “But on the other hand the piece shows many different sides of the reality that women and especially queer women face on the internet. The opera leaves you with just as many questions as answers.
But working on this opera has completely changed how I personally behave on the internet. I have changed the way I speak of other people on social media and also how I read what other people say about others there. I’ve stopped believing most of the things I read on the internet after this process. I would say that I have developed a much more positive outlook after working on this opera.”

Is the #echochamber a full blown opera in the traditional sense?
“It´s a full blown contemporary opera. The show time is approximately one hour and there is no intermission.” Ísabella explains. “It’s a brand new opera and very contemporary as it deals with public shaming in social media, especially regarding women. Sexual orientation is not an issue, per se, and it is not a main theme in the piece, except for the fact that the woman who is bisexual has a hard time coming out with the fact that she is in a relationship with a woman.”

“… working on this opera has completely changed how I personally behave on the internet. I have changed the way I speak of other people on social media and also how I read what other people say about others there.”

The ensemble has worked on the opera as a group and used social media, especially twitter as it’s source. There will be a lot of screens on the stage were the audience can read verbatim quotes from Twitter. It’s also interactive in the sense that people can tweet under the hashtag #echochamber during the show and some of the tweets will be sung by the singers on stage.

“One of the singers will sing incoming tweets on the spot, and they can be about anything that people want to say. From “this is a really boring show” to “why is there no intermission,” says Ísabella and laughs. “The stream will be completely open and all the tweets will appear on the screens on the stage. One of the themes of the opera is how random peoples outbursts are on social media and how cruel it can be. There is no censorship on the internet and people can suffer all kinds of attacks there without having a chance to defend themselves.”

So this is a dramatic piece?
“Oh, yes,” Ísabella exclaims. “There’s a lot of drama.”

#echochamber will premier in Tjarnarbíó in Reykjavík on May 25th, and there will only be four performances here, so get your ticket as soon as you can. By the sound of it this is not an experience you want to miss.

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