Lecturer’s libretto returns to the stage
An opera featuring a libretto written by University of Brighton lecturer Eleanor Knight is to be performed in London in August.
Eleanor Knight, who teaches on the Creative Writing MA, wrote the libretto (words) for the short opera Silk Moth, which premiered at the Nour Festival of Arts in London in 2015.
Silk Moth runs at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney from August 9 to 11. Part of the theatre’s ‘Grimeborn’ season, it weaves together Arabic and Western music traditions and explores honour crime, family violence and female (dis)empowerment in Britain and beyond.
Eleanor had previously penned the words for an opera about Jean Rhys as part of the Royal Opera House Exposure season in 2012, among other librettos. She got involved with Silk Moth after responding to an online advert that read: “librettist wanted.”
Eleanor was hired for the role after meeting with the opera’s composer Bushra El-Turk and original director Michael Moxham.
As part of their preparation work for the opera, Eleanor and Bushra visited the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation to meet and talk to women who had escaped honour violence. They recorded the conversations and paid attention to how the women spoke of their experiences. Eleanor also read about cases of honour crime in newspapers.
An estimated 5,000 women every year are murdered by members of their families in so-called honour killings around the world. Writing in the blurb of the opera’s original run, Eleanor said: “Honour violence, forced marriage, female genital mutilation and honour killings are part of an unspoken code wherein the social standing and financial interests of the immediate and extended family are inimical to women’s autonomy, and where the value of men is invested in the chastity of their womenfolk.
“To speak out – whether you are a victim of a perpetrator, a child or a parent – is to risk losing everything: home, family, community, even life itself.”
Of her research for the opera, Eleanor said: “Although I was really interested in finding out what men were thinking in cases of honour killing, it is extremely difficult to make contact with men who have been involved in any of these cases. The perpetrators may be in prison of course, and, if they’re not, it’s highly unlikely they’re going to talk to me and put themselves in danger.”
As Eleanor had only one singer to work with, she came up with the idea of a mother as the “family message-centre”. Eleanor explained that the mother in the opera is: “in a domestic setting, preparing a meal and receiving text messages and looking through a school project her daughter has done on her laptop.
“That way I could cheat and put in some extra ‘voices’. There are also tweets that appear in the opera, which are an English version of Afghan ‘landays’ – a traditional form of poetry that is performed between women when no men are around.”
Eleanor said she had a few “ideas up my sleeve” for future librettos, and is open to future collaborations with opera directors and composers.