Opera Mums with Bryony Kimmings – 6 September 2020 – 6/9/2020 – Sunday – BBC Four
Performance artist Bryony Kimmings loves to make work about her own life. After award-winning work on men and mental health (Fake it ’til you Make it), sexually transmitted diseases (Sex Idiot) and her recent show on the breakup of her relationship and accompanying nervous breakdown (I’m a Phoenix, Bitch), she now turns her unflinching and hilarious gaze onto single motherhood. In collaboration with documentary film-maker Daisy Asquith, she creates a girl gang of brilliantly lovable single mums and takes inspiration from their emotional and hilarious stories to create an opera! A tour of English National Opera’s backstage workings gives Kimmings a crash course in all things operatic, and confirms it is the perfect medium to represent the drama and high-octane intensity of single motherhood.
The demands of the opera industry that subjects are not kitchen sink, not domestic, not everyday, and should contain as the props workshop manager says, smoking, weapons and religion, are turned on their head by Kimmings’s insistence that real life is just as deserving of high art as the stories of the rich and powerful. It may be about time, but it’s also a wonder that single mums have the time to have any art made about them at all. As Kimmings says, ‘we’re all too busy being single mums!’ The mums in the documentary footage are delighted at the opportunity to be heard.
Stevie, a mum of two from East Sussex, is in her own words unrelentingly positive, but remembering telling her kids that she and their dad were separating still makes her very emotional. ‘I always thought people were mad to stay together for the kids, but the moment the words came out of my mouth I thought, “I get it know”. And in that moment I wished I could take it back… even though I know it was the right thing for our family.’ Grace got married young and suffered postnatal depression after her daughter was born. Her Nigerian community would never accept divorce. She says she sometimes wished a bus would run her over so she wouldn’t have to break her husband’s heart. Kerry has five kids, four with her husband and one with a more recent partner. She is proudly ‘council’, like Kimmings herself. The first sign her husband was leaving her was a suitcase in the hallway. Her strength is inspiring. Emily has a teenage daughter who has a habit of running away. Kimmings treats the news that Emily is a ‘practising witch’ with a light touch, focusing in on the universal experience of parenting wild teenagers: fear. The fifth and final single mum, Leigh, is interestingly also an opera singer, bridging the gap between art and life, and preventing any implication of ‘us and them’ in the programme. The girl gang is a powerful force when together, shedding their masks that say, “’I’m fine!’ and telling it like it is.
Working with composer Vahan Salorian (Boys of Paradise), a very modern and non- precious process is embraced. Kimmings writes the words, Salorian, the music, and five young opera singers are swiftly hired to play the mums. Just three days of rehearsal make this 12-minute opera an extraordinary labour of love, and it is performed on the fourth day at a gorgeous old music hall venue, Hoxton Hall in Shoreditch. The single mums are the VIP guests, seated prominently in the front row of the dress circle, where the audience can also see them.
The performance is deeply moving, and also subversive, in classic Kimmings style, with plenty of laughs, a sprinkle of swearing and even a ‘slut year’ thrown in amongst the loneliness and worry. Judgmental and snobbish attitudes to single mothers cannot help but be overturned by this portrayal, which forces us to recognise the individuality and humanity of each mum. The crew on this programme merit a mention, as it was overwhelmingly made by women. One female director, two female executive producers, one female producer, a female production manager, a female DOP, a female camera operator, two female camera assistants and a female editor, many of them single mums themselves. The programme was finished in the early weeks of lockdown ,with director Daisy Asquith working remotely and Bryony recording the voice-over in her bedroom. The programme itself is proof of Kimmings’s claim: ‘Single mums can do anything!’
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