A room of her own

The women brought to life by the operas of young composer Kate Whitley and her librettists seem unbreakable. They exist in strange settings: as protagonists of twisted and bizarre love-stories, tales of lovesickness and tragedies about destruction and violence. In one of her three operas, a sci-fi dance-opera titled Terrible Lips (libretto by Finn Beames), the boundaries of reality break down into dystopian fantasy. Ssol, the central character, discovers a frequency that has the power to destroy and transport her body to another dimension. She raises an army of women who, dancing, stamping and screaming, begin to tear apart the universe together. These dark and often obscure themes – violent apocalypses, objectum-sexuality and torture – are carried across and brought to life by Whitley’s disturbing, haunting, brutal, yet beautiful scores. The women are ultimately all tragic and dark, yet also powerful and resilient; their stories emerge so strongly only through Whitley’s exquisite command over sound.

“Opera has been one of my main areas for a little while,” explains Kate. We’re sitting in King’s Place surrounded by suited people on lunch breaks and Kate is facing me, perched on the edge of a sofa. “After leaving school, during which I went to Junior Guildhall, I was really undecided between going to Cambridge and going to Manchester University where they run a joint course with The Royal Northern College of Music. I eventually chose Cambridge but I spent the first year trying to leave to go to Manchester. But then, a friend told me how, whilst he was at Cambridge, he’d put on his own chamber opera and I remember thinking ‘Wow, that’s the coolest thing I could ever imagine doing…'” Kate laughs. “I decided to stay at Cambridge and to make the most of it so I put on three chamber operas all in my last year. I crammed in the last one just before I left!

Bonesong was the first opera; it’s the only piece I’ve ever written co-composed with someone else. I worked with Joe Snape, who writes electronic music. He wrote the electronics, I wrote the other parts and we designed the piece together. That was put on by Carmen Elektra, an opera company that I started in Cambridge and we put it on in Cambridge Zoology museum.” I ask Kate about the plot of the opera and she smiles. “Well… It’s about a vulture eating a child and turning the child’s carcass into a musical instrument in order to seduce the child’s sister. Joe made up the story.” Kate’s smile spreads wider and she laughs.

In 2011, Kate founded The Orchestra Project in which live modern and contemporary classical music is taken to often unusual venues and areas

“We wrote Bonesong, specifically, to happen in the Zoology museum. Really an amazing place, full of skeletons, specimens, birds in cages… People watched from two floors and it was so packed that people even watched through the roof, outside. It was really a great evening. The orchestra were completely crushed in amongst the skeletons. Visually, it was really exciting. If you look up Carmen Elektra, there are lots of pictures… with a ‘k’ not a ‘c’ – if you search with a ‘c’, you’ll just get Carmen Electra the porn star… which is a bit of a problem!” Kate laughs again.

“I really enjoyed composing Unknown Position,” Kate says when I ask which was her favourite opera to work on. “It’s about a woman who falls in love with a chair. I wrote it with my friend Emma Hogan [writer and librettist] and we worked on a lot of plot together; it was very collaborative, a lot of fun! Broadly, it’s about objectum-sexuality, which is where people fall in love with inanimate objects. We found a lot about it online: things about women who are in love with the Berlin Wall and the Eiffel Tower and things. In the last scene of the opera, all the words are about other people, real cases.”

Terrible Lips, similarly, was performed by Carmen Elektra in Cambridge. I ask Kate about the title of the opera and where it came from and she explains, “The librettist was Finn Beames and the opera was originally going to be called something else, but he wrote the libretto – he writes really beautifully – and there was a whole section where the words ‘terrible lips’ kept appearing and I said ‘that is what we should call it!'” Kate goes on to tell me about how the warehouse they performed in was home to a group of bike polo players. “The warehouse was just outside Cambridge, in an area quite far from the traditional scenes associated with the city. The bikers weren’t too keen to let us hold the opera there at first but they came around to it in the end. It worked really well.”

As well as composing, Kate also produces events and projects. In 2011, she founded The Orchestra Project in which live modern and contemporary classical music is taken to often unusual venues and areas. The orchestra (Multi-Story) perform, yearly, at a multi story car park in Peckham; in 2011, Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring was performed and then, in 2012, John Adams’ Harmonielehre.

This year, Kate composed a piece for the car park herself: “Wishes, Lies and Dreams was funded by the PRS Women Make Music Award. It’s a piece for children’s choir and orchestra. Myself and Chris [Christopher Stark, conductor] went around all the primary schools to teach the kids the song. It ties into the work that we did with schools previously with The Orchestra Project.” She continues, “I’d have never imagined myself to be doing this type of thing as part of my composing. But you just sort of rise up to the challenge and it usually goes to plan. I think that it’s really good to do things that you didn’t think you’d be able to do as well.

What you should do is try to use your status as an outsider to make things change

“There are so few known female composers in history, but it’s improved so much in just a few years,” Kate explains as we begin discussing how it is being a female composer. “There are quite a lot of female composers now. It’s blossomed a lot recently. I think it’s really great. It’s a big help too, for those wishing to go into composition, to have female role models to look up to. In something like conducting, which is so much more male-dominated, there are barely any role models really, but, in composition, there are quite a few now and the numbers, I feel, are increasing. It’s rapidly improving.

“It’s difficult, however, going into something where all the top people are male,” Kate continues, adding that entering something where, in the younger generation, women are quite well-represented “…feels like you’re part of something which is changing – that you’re part of that change – which is way better than going into something and feeling like you’re trying to be what’s already there. And that’s how it is in composition at the moment I think. It’s like in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, which I think makes the point that when you’re coming into a society which has been dominated by men for such a long time, what you should do – instead of joining in the structure that is already there – is try to use your status as an outsider to make things change… and that’s what feels cool about there being lots of younger composers who are female. It feels like it could be something that may change, rather than something that is slotting into something that already exists.” Kate pauses. “It’s such a positive time to be a female composer.”

You can find out more about the Carmen Elektra opera collective at their website.

Image descriptions and credits:

1. Close-up headshot of Kate Whitley smiling in front of a slightly blurred white background. Her face is clear, while the blurred focus spreads to the left side of her head. By Christopher Stark and shared under a Creative Commons license.

2. Joanna Songi, as the main character in Bonesong, stands onstage holding up a brown hand-mirror to look into it. A jug sits in front on the stage floor. By Kat Waters and shared under a Creative Commons license.

ADDENDUM (15/08/2013, 22.15): The orchestra who perform at a multi story car park in Peckham each year have now changed their name from TROSP to Multi-Story. The text in this piece has been altered to reflect this.

Claire Hazelton is a writer and classical musician living in London. She is currently writing her first novel and a non-fiction book with musician John Parish. Follow her @ClaireHazelton