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Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera at St John’s Church, Hyde Park

The title, Song Queen: A Pidgin Opera captivates interest within itself. The two words Pidgin and Opera seem worlds apart. But the typically Italian art of opera and the Nigerian Pidgin dialect can live very closely together in an international hub such as London. The fusion of these different cultures relates to the aims of the show. The program states that the show “aims to create a space that brings people from diverse cultures together, find commonalities and celebrate each other in meaningful ways.” This is evident throughout and is executed quite well, as the show progresses there is a warmth that can be felt.

Song Queen: A Pidgin OperaOn the stage, there are 4 operatic singers, a string quartet, and 2 drum players. And movement artists as well as projected visuals are used to further enhance the show. Because of the venue, St. Johns Church in Hyde Park, not having elevated seating there were two TVs set up towards the edges of the middle rows. Because of my chosen seat, at times I felt distracted by the televisions while at other moments they were helpful. The lead Kenate, Helen Epega, will sometimes move up and down the aisle, as well as the movement artists, Francis Angol and Ezme Benjamin. This movement is important for the show, but at the same time, I found myself slightly disoriented because I had to shift my view from the TV screen to the live performance.

I do think, at least in this venue, that the number of different elements can be a drawback. Each part of the show was incredible on its own, but I found myself feeling that I would miss something. My eyes couldn’t look at everything all at once. I do think a different venue would allow for all the elements; the projected visuals, the movement artists, the musicians, and Kenate to coexist beautifully. But at this time that was not the case.

Even though there were those moments of unease the amazing musical performances brought me back into a state of awe. I wish I could purchase a Song Queen soundtrack. The strings (a cello, Gabriel Francis-Dehqani, two violins, Madeline Dawson and Thibaut Pesnel, as well as a viola, Ruby Bowler) flourished and seemed to sing with the Menemeh Elder vocalists. There was also an electric guitar, Adam Coney, that had a backing element to the almost lyrical performance of the strings. The elders were two mezzo-sopranos, Lousia Martin and Clara Kanter, as well as a lyric soprano, Yvonne Davies. Along with the elders, there was a tenor, Damien Noyce, and a Baritone, Yuki Okuyama. Each voice was highlighted at a carefully planned moment within the show. The percussion included African Percussion, Richard Olátundé Baker, and Steelpans, Abdul Williams was grounding and was moving the show along seamlessly. There was also a voice drum that Epega played, this instrumental inclusion was the final touch. Christopher Huntley is incredible as a Musical Director as well as the Pianist, helping to create a musical performance that I’ve been left thinking of for days.

I came into Song Queen with little expectations, I was unfamiliar with the Pidgin dialect, and am still not that knowledgeable of Opera. But once I left, I understood it all. The ambiance created is warm, welcoming, and inspiring. Beauty seeps out of this show and lingers past the end.

4 stars

Review by Elisabeth Beer

First performed in 2015 at the Tête à Tête Opera Festival, Song Queen is the first ever Pidgin English opera. By blending the rich African tradition of storytelling, Nigerian Pidgin English, Patois, Creole, Cockney, Hip Hop Vernacular & Multicultural London Slang with Western Classical music, the opera offers a unique, multicultural experience presented through an Afro-Futuristic lens.

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