A year ago, I was preparing to return to Guildhall School of Music & Drama where I was a student on the MA in Opera Making – an amazing programme (the only one of its kind in the world) that excavates and nurtures the idea and reality of close collaboration across and between all the art forms contributing to opera.
Back then I was working on my first chamber opera libretto – The Apothecary, a collaboration with composer Amy Crankshaw. And I was really enjoying other aspects of the programme, including working on several other shorter vocal projects, and writing a research paper investigating the collaborative relationship between Benjamin Britten and William Plomer.
Several days a week, I wore my commuting apron (complete with warm gloves and snacks in pockets, for waiting on cold platforms). This apron had to be adapted of course, from March onwards, to become a Zoom opera apron. The pockets held cups of coffee, huge quantities of patience and concentration, yoga instructions for inter-rehearsal breaks, sandwiches and apples, and sheafs of notes. Collaborators at Guildhall – singers, instrumentalists, tech people, repetiteurs, conductors, producers, directors, film-makers, everyone – rose miraculously to the immense challenges of making opera online during lockdown, and although the short film versions of The Apothecary are no longer in the public domain, you can listen to Amy Crankshaw’s extraordinary musical score (and my words) here.
Throughout my own year of studies (with final hand-in and presentation dates in July/August for creative portfolio, research paper and self-reflective work) I also wore my teaching apron. This, in my mind at least, is made of strong but pliable fabric, brightly blocked with colour, and with multiple pockets stitched between layers of the base fabric – these are filled with nourishing bits and pieces for my OU Creative Writing students.
During the many long months of 2020, when everyone had so many concerns, pastoral aspects of teaching were even more important than in a ‘normal’ year. I was continually humbled and moved by the way students were managing to submit work in spite of fiendish personal, health, work and domestic difficulties. I’m proud to have supported my student group and proud that they all made it through with such a lot to show for their commitment. By the end of the year all the extra pockets in my teaching apron were filled again, metaphorically, with unexpected gifts.
Although I’d taken a year out to do something intensely new and different at Guildhall, older projects came back into focus too, and needed attention. The aprons for these projects were hanging in the cupboard, and I took them out and wore them again. Some felt a little stiff at first, or needed new accessories or a bit of mending. Others felt more comfortable than before. In one or two cases, something forgotten and rediscovered in a pocket provided inspiration for a new line of enquiry.
These are some of the revisitations:
I was commissioned to contribute to a forum on lists in life writing for a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Writing this piece entitled ‘Listing the Unthinkable’ was a fascinating process. I wrote the list entries – one or two a day – over many weeks, on first waking. You can read the resulting creative list essay here.
I wrote a piece called ‘Numbness and Angels’, about the link between my risk-reducing mastectomies and writing my memoir The Missing List. This was published on the BMJ Medical Humanities blog.
I’m delighted that two reviews of The Missing List are coming out soon in academic journals: one in Canadian Woman Studies and another in the European Journal of Life Writing.
Excitement! A cycle of poems inspired by many visits to the northern shore of Lago Maggiore, and which I wrote slowly over many years, will be published in 2021 by the wonderful Maria Isakova Bennett between striking hand-stitched covers typical of her beautiful Coast to Coast to Coast journals. In due course this poem cycle – End of Season – will also be set to music by my colleague Amy Crankshaw. The cycle of poems will have another life as a song cycle.
Now, I have a new apron for Guildhall, a Fellow’s apron acquired in October and which I shall treasure and continue to wear with pride until next autumn. For the moment it closely resembles last year’s Zoom opera apron but from time to time I go to London with my new apron for encounters with flesh-and-blood singers, composers, opera makers.
This coming spring and summer should include, with a lot of luck, real-life staged productions of The Apothecary, as well as productions of two other chamber operas for which I am currently writing libretti. There might even be real audiences.
A few ideas and projects I’d been unsure of in 2019 and early 2020 have magically sorted themselves out or have clicked into place in my head while I’ve been looking the other way, wearing other aprons, and making opera and vocal projects.
One prose project is presently at the sketching stage. I’m still designing the very special apron I need to wear to make this book – it will have pockets for photographs, for maps, for documents, and for trees of various kinds…
I wish everyone happier, calmer and more satisfying times in 2021. May it be a year of creativity, promise, and dreams. Above all, may it be a year of good health and recovery.
And for everyone, let’s hope that at some point in 2021 we have the chance to take off the aprons, put them away, and enjoy a holiday.