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In spring 2016, Chetham’s School of Music and The Bridgewater Hall united over 200 performers in brand new community opera remembering the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout.
On Sunday 24 April 1932, workers from Manchester and Sheffield gathered beneath the slopes of Kinder Scout. Now part of the Peak District National Park, the mountain and the open countryside around it was privately owned, with limited access to the mill and factory workers escaping the industrial cities each weekend. In the face of landowners’ threats and gamekeepers’ sticks, the workers began the Mass Trespass – asserting their rights to explore the countryside and leading, eventually, on a direct path to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act which established open access land in 2000.
A strong history of collaboration between Chetham’s and The Bridgewater Hall, the city’s major concert hall, has included productions of Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and WWI tale, The Silver Donkey. When the two organisations began discussing a season celebrating the music and poetry of northern uplands, a production remembering the Mass Trespass soon began to develop.
The result, on 24 April 2016, was Get Weaving; a brand new community opera commissioned by Chetham’s and The Bridgewater Hall which gathered over 200 performers on the Hall’s stage. The journey was a long one. Composer Andrew Keeling and librettist Alison Prince joined project leaders from both organisations to climb Kinder Scout in summer 2015. The next day, participants gathered to explore the themes which emerged, and to develop them into music and narrative. Those participants varied hugely. The Bridgewater Hall Singers, only formed in early 2015, are an audition-free choir who meet each fortnight to sing for pleasure. Maghull Wind Orchestra is a community-based symphonic wind orchestra from Merseyside, with members of all ages and backgrounds. Chetham’s instrumentalists, singers and Manchester Cathedral choristers led the action, whilst pupils from a neighbouring primary school completed the ensemble. Andrew Keeling visited every group, writing each part for their individual instrumentation and ability. Conductor Michael Betteridge brought with him extensive experience of leading massed ensembles, and rehearsed with each group in turn to ensure that they shared tempi and dynamics. Just two days before the production, the forces gathered for the very first time, and welcomed their audience after around eight hours of rehearsing en masse.
A project of this scale should, by rights, have been a vast logistical undertaking. Yet somehow it worked smoothly – with considerable administration, but more particularly through a very genuine partnership and an open approach to the abilities and limitations of each performer, of the venue, and of the rehearsal period. The music was especially written to challenge but not overwhelm each performer; parts for each section of the ensemble were designed to be prepared independently and united in a short rehearsal. The term ‘opera’ was applied loosely, and Betteridge described the final piece instead as a ‘through composed cantata’ encompassing rock, tango and musical theatre; giving the Chetham’s students, more used to choral and orchestral concerts, an opportunity to explore new styles of singing and staging their performances. Even non-musical roles were undertaken by group members, with Chetham’s sixth formers operating followspots and managing prop and costume changes backstage.
The performance played to rapturous applause as the culmination of The Bridgewater Hall’s Echoes of a Mountain Song season. It ended with a reprise of its signature number, the rock ballad ‘Get Weaving’; as cast, choir and orchestra danced in triumph and exhaustion, the broad grins on every face begged only one question – what should we create together next?