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Grimeborn Festival Stages Daring Triple Bill Featuring El-Turk’s “Silk Moth”

It’s summer opera festival season in the UK–so, are you a Glyndebourne or a Grimeborn person? Country house in Sussex, or a converted factory in east London? Mostly standard repertoire, or an adventurous programme with plenty of contemporary discoveries? Membership advised if you want to attend, or accessible pricing? Picnic on the lawn in the supper interval, or walk round the corner to the finest Turkish kebab joints in town? Glyndebourne’s founder, John Christie, “encouraged the wearing of formal dress to show respect to the singers and musicians,” while Grimeborn say “Whether it’s your first or your latest opera experience, you’ll be right at home.”

Grimeborn it is. Their summer season takes place in the carbon neutral Arcola Theatre: it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to say the factory has been renovated–walls are unfinished and facilities are basic–but Grimeborn brought its unique approach to opera to both performance spaces. On 9 August, I saw Silk Moth, a triple bill mounted by Ruthless Jabiruin the more intimate space.

An ensemble of Australian musicians directed by Kelly Lovelady, Ruthless Jabiru describe themselves as “a London chamber orchestra dedicated to new music and humanitarian stories.” They collaborate with activists and campaigners, making them an excellent fit for the central work on the programme, Bushra El-Turk’s Silk Moth, a story of female genital mutilation and ‘honour’-based violence. The final work on their programme was Bel Canto(2010) by Canadian composer Cassandra Miller, “a portrait of Maria Callas, based on her live recording of Puccini’s Vissi d’arte–with all the full generosity of her vibrato, swoops and portamenti.” Miller’s work often takes recording transcriptions as a starting point and Lovelady’s intention was to use this piece as an opportunity for “controlled reflection.”

The set played without a break and the staging connected all three works, starting with an ash-like substance falling onto a heap on the white floor. The programme began with The Heart’s Ear (1997) for flute, clarinet and string trio by fellow Australian Liza Lim, with the instrumentalists in a row at the back of the room and Lovelady conducting from a corner. This 12-minute-long “meditation on a fragment of a Sufi melody” is a study in ambiguity and wavering pitch, combining sinuous arabesques with more incisive, dense textures. The ensemble were strong advocates for the work, though the dry acoustic did them no favours. Towards the end, we became aware that the black heap was moving; a female performer emerged and cast off the net in which she was encased, to a backdrop of projected images of opening flowerbuds.

The actor left the stage and Silk Moth started. Composed by Bushra El-Turk, a Londoner of Lebanese heritage who is fully in tune with Ruthless Jabiru’s mission to see art as a means for social change, to a libretto by Eleanor Knight, Silk Moth “explores the story of a mother implicated in the gender abuse and honour killing of her own daughter. […] the role of Mother calls for a rare agility across Arabic and operatic vocal styles in equal measure.”

Camille Maalawy in Bushra El-Turk's Silk Moth--Photo by Lidia CrisafulliCamille Maalawy in Bushra El-Turk’s Silk Moth
Photo by Lidia Crisafulli

The British-Egyptian mezzo Camille Maalawy, experienced in Arabic and Sephardic singing styles as well as Western classical music, was a perfect fit for Mother. Mona Khalili, Karim Jabri, Shira Agmon, Sophie Atalar and Aivale Cole acted as foils to Mother and represented the suffocating family and community through Heather Fairbairn’s effective “choreographic opera” direction. Khalili, the daughter, had a speaking role, but significantly only Mother had a singing voice.

Simple gestures–reacting to photos or looking at a tablet–spoke volumes, and at the climax, Khalili was tied up using a rope light and black scarf. Maalawy emerging wearing a rubber glove was enough to suggest the act of mutilation, though the projected text was far more graphic: “This flesh, pink cut, cast down on the floor/Is your promise to them that I will never want more.” The daughter read, deadpan, the lifecycle of the silkworm: it weaves its own cocoon, and it must die, unable to emerge as a fully-grown moth, in order for the cocoon to be harvested intact. Silk is a commodity; so, it is suggested, is a woman’s life.

Maalawy was not only a strong singer, but also an excellent actress who brought a warm humanity to Mother and projected complex emotion even when reacting to a phone screen. The character might have had a voice, but Maalawy’s layered portrayal suggested she had little agency. El-Turk’s music created its own world with a small number of instruments. The hollow timbre of the ney was underpinned by astringent accordion, and intricate interweaving violin and cello built up to some powerful climaxes.

Camille Maalawy performs in Silk Moth at Grimeborn 2019 from 9 to 11 August 2019 at London’s Arcola Theatre. More information and tickets
As part of the promotion for Silk Moth, Camille was interviewed for Meet The Artist  by @CrossEyedPiano
Read the full interview here

 

CAMILLE’S WIGMORE HALL DEBUT!
Friday March 5th 2010, reviewed by Peter Grahame Woolf:
Lama’s two songs to texts form Darwish’s
Yatirou-I Haanou felt like extended accompanied recitative, expressively presented by an excellent versatile mezzo Camille Maalawy, whose repertoire represents her “passion for embracing music from many cultures”.

 

Other Notable Performances:
Concert performances have included Music Beyond Frontiers, a concert of Arabic and Jewish music with Hilda Bronstein, as part of the Sing London Festival; a recital to support the Friends of Bereaved Families Forum: Israeli-Palestinian Families for Peace (LSO St. Lukes); Murder in the Cathedral (Iris Theatre); the world premiere of Song of Songs (Ken Burton); concerts with the Choir of London, under the baton of John Rutter and performances for the charity Hafla which promotes Middle-Eastern co-existence.
Recent engagements have included Camille’s debut at the Wigmore Hall singing songs by the Palestinian composer, Patrick Lama; a premiere of a new work for the Ekon Greek Music Festival and of a song cycle by Julian Dawes; a performance with the Lincoln Noel Trio; recitals at St. Pancras Parish Church, St. Ethelburga’s Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, Arts Depot, Finchley and a series of concerts with the London Vintage Jazz Orchestra.