Not Such Quiet Girls: A Contemporary Opera

Opera North’s Not Such Quiet Girls is a contemporary story of the first world war and a contemporary stance on opera. It completely subverted my expectation of the art form, of the singing in a language I cannot understand on a grand, proscenium arch stage with a huge orchestra. Instead, the opera had four multi-tasking ‘band’ members, an all-female cast and was staged at The Howard Assembly Rooms, a modern theatrical space where the audience sat around the edge of the space, in the round. Because of the intimacy of the venue, the audience and actors were very close. Indeed, at the beginning of the performance, the actors put on their costumes whilst the audience took their seats.

The opera explored female relationships of every kind, something that is uncommon within other re-enactments and adaptations of the war. Although women’s roles in the war were revolutionary, giving them incredible independence, the play focused on the impact this new autonomy had on their relationships, in particular, a romantic relationship between two women.

The entire performance was a play within a play so the actors, effectively, played two characters. Subtle differences in their acting style indicated whether we were in 1918 or 2018. Tony (Cora Kirk) and Harry’s (Laura Prior) relationship transcended the two stories and time periods. It existed across the whole performance. We saw the different choices and sacrifices they made and didn’t make for each other in 1918 and 2018.

The emotion behind their relationship in 1918 was much more than communication. It was portrayed through physicality and music as it could not be spoken about verbally. Beautiful moments of first touches and the pushing and pulling of each other’s bodies were enough to communicate the truth of their love for each other. Due to the present acceptance of homosexuality, in the 2018 version of their relationship, words were used. In comparison to the highly charged performance for 1918, their breakup in 2018 seemed flippant. They now had the liberty to speak aloud without any consequences. But, at least they now had the choice, and they owed this to the centuries of women questioning this injustice. They did not have to break up because of society holding them apart.

It was hugely refreshing and surprising to see such an unconventional style of performance and story. It followed women of all ages, and all types of relationships, from romantic to platonic to familial. It was refreshing to see older women amongst younger women on stage, interacting with each other regardless of age. Furthermore, it was empowering for the women to have gender neutral names, disregarding stereotypical ideas of femininity. It rejected the Hollywood obsession with portraying only stories of young, heterosexual women. Not Such Quiet Girls was a complete subversion of everybody’s expectations.

Not Such Quiet Girls had its world premiere in Leeds on 29 November 2018. It was commissioned by Opera North and Leeds Playhouse as a commemoration of the centenary of the 1918 Armistice.

Amy Harrison 

Image Courtesy of Opera North