By Azura Farid
[Content warning for mentions of death, violence and suicide]
Do you remember what it was like, being a girl?
Maybe you’re still a girl. Maybe you were once, and aren’t any longer. Maybe you’ve never been a girl, or you have and you wish you hadn’t. Maybe you wish you’d had the chance to be one.
What is it like, being the tragic heroine of an opera?
Maybe you don’t know. Maybe you’ve never killed yourself for love, or died for love. Maybe you’ve never thrown yourself off a parapet, or stabbed yourself, or poisoned yourself, or ridden your horse into a funeral pyre. Maybe you’ve never even picked up a severed human head in your bare, bloody hands, and kissed it, before being murdered on your stepfather’s orders.
Do you know how it feels to be a powerful girl?
Hand on hips, gazing straight back at your audience. Feet planted flat on the floor, arms firmly on the arms of your chair.
How does it feel, watching these girls inhabit their powerful selves? Does it remind you of who you were at that age? When you were strong, how did you show it? If you knew your power, did you own it?
If you’re a powerful girl, who will you grow up to be?
At first: quiet birdsong. On the seven screens in the atrium, you see six girls and one woman looking directly at you, in a way that women rarely get to do in images. These images remind you of those portraits of old white men you’ve seen so often in museum galleries. Except these pictures are moving.
Then unseen voices start to whisper, the girls turn away, close their eyes, cover their faces with their hair.
Now comes the music, that distinctive descending bass line which feels like the inevitability of time, or death, or destiny. Dido’s Lament.
Dido, Queen of Carthage, sings: “When I am laid in earth, may my wrongs create no trouble in thy breast.” The woman we’re hearing is about to die. The girls we’re seeing on these screens are alive, and if they suffer any wrongs, you can tell they have no qualms about making trouble.
You know the stories. You know the songs. You know what it means to hear the singer Tosca cry out to her enemy, “Avanti a Dio!”, her parting shot before she leaps to her death, and to see the girls on the screens raise their fists together at the music’s climax. You know why the image makes you weep.
A gunshot over the speakers – soldiers shooting Tosca’s beloved Mario – becomes co-creator and performer Tabatha Howard popping her pink bubblegum. You hear Tosca’s breakdown as she realises that Mario is really dead, not just pretending, and you see Tabatha posing like a Greek statue, grounded and steady. You hear despair, and you see power.
Why does it make you gasp to hear the princess Salome hit the high note on “Ich habe deinen mund geküsst, Jochanaan” while watching co-creator and performer Beatrix Juno Dudley raise a big disembodied Barbie head, never breaking eye contact with the camera all the while?
Why does it make you smile when Suor Angelica, a nun with a secret son, drinks poison in the hope of seeing her child again in heaven, while co-creator and performer Mpho Takane takes a long swig from her water bottle? The tragic and the mundane, the life-taking and the life-preserving.
How is it that they can make you cry, standing alone in the atrium of a theatre in broad daylight? This isn’t where the drama is ‘supposed’ to happen. You’re supposed to be able to weep, or gasp, or cheer, in the safety of the herd, seated at an appropriate distance from the tragedy or triumph playing out onstage. Instead, you get to feel your big operatic feelings metres away from an usher or an acquaintance, who could interrupt the moment at any second.
Would you feel this way if you didn’t know these operas? If this was all just sound and noise to your ears, what would you make of these images? Try to imagine.
But you can’t un-know what you know. The body language, the unflinching gaze, the powerful stances, the reinvention of the imagery once reserved for powerful men from centuries past — these would speak to you anyway.
I watch teenage girls watching teenage girls break the rules, take up space, make noise, command attention. How many of us can say we have run, screaming, down the stairs next to Victoria Concert Hall, or let the sound of our hooting and screeching echo off these high ceilings? Who has ever imagined doing a cartwheel across this hallowed floor?
It’s not seamless, which is part of its beauty. The performers speak, sing and move with gravitas as well as hints of nerves. Don’t you remember being 15 and feeling your heart rate double when you stepped out to speak in front of a crowd of strangers or friends? Don’t you remember what it was like, being a girl?
Abandoned by her lover, Dido, Queen of Carthage, sings in her final lament, “Remember me, but ah! Forget my fate.” The girls on these screens aren’t asking to be forgotten. These video portraits are of individuals who will be remembered, not for being monarchs or generals, but for being themselves. You can’t forget their fate, when their fate is still on the horizon.
Shimmer: Moving Pictures, Moving Sounds is written in response to We Will Slam You With Our Wings, taking place till 4 June at the Atrium of Victoria Theatre and Victoria Concert Hall.
 “[We’ll meet] before God!”
 “I have kissed your mouth, Jochanaan”