Create an opera in a day? No problem!

Yasmin Hemmings is the LSO's Discovery and LSO Live Trainee, and has been working at the LSO for just a few weeks. Create an Opera in a Day was one of her first projects to be involved in, and she gives us an account of the day.

On Saturday 1 November, families arrived at LSO St Luke’s for the LSO Discovery Family Day, LSO in Wartime: Create an Opera in a Day. The Family Day was part of a weekend of events organised by the LSO which commemorated the centenary of World War I. Formed in 1904, the LSO had just celebrated its tenth anniversary when war broke out and 41 musicians who had played with the LSO, or were to play with them in the future, served in the war.

Those attending the day got to take part in three workshops: Create an Opera, Musical Storytelling and Arts & Crafts. In these workshops, they helped to recreate the experiences of LSO musicians during World War I and found out what happened when they went from performers in the concert hall to soldiers on the battlefield, as well as creating new music inspired by their wartime tales. The day started at 10am and after welcoming everybody it was time to split into three groups; Army Generals, Majors and Captains. I joined the Captains and we headed off to the Clore Rooms to begin our day in the Arts & Crafts workshop.

Arts & Crafts

Arts & Crafts workshop

In the Arts & Crafts workshop, everybody had the opportunity to make World War I-themed accessories such as army hats, bonnets, medals and postcards. The workshop was led by Victoria Brown, with help from her husband and sons, who began by giving us a demonstration of how to make the army hats and bonnets. It was then left to the families to construct their hats and decorate them in whichever way they wanted, giving them a chance to show off their artistic skills! As well as hats, the families made medals and postcards which could be personalised with the vast array of arts & craft materials that Victoria had brought for everyone to use. The workshop was a massive success and I think everyone, myself included, could have happily stayed there making World War I themed accessories all day (I even saw a few people sneak back at lunchtime to finish up their hats!). At 11.30, however, it was time to gather up the accessories we’d made and begin our next workshop.

Create an Opera

For our second workshop we headed to Jerwood Hall to take part in the Create an Opera workshop, which was led by Rachel Leach and Tim Yealland with help from trumpeter Sam Kinrade and baritone Maciek O’Shea. We started the workshop by learning the well-known wartime song ‘Goodbye-ee’, with Tim teaching us actions to go along with the lyrics.

Creating an opera with Tim and RachelEach group was then tasked with creating an opera scene based on the story of an LSO musician. Our group was given Sydney Moxon, a trumpet player who was one of the first LSO members to join the army. Sydney joined up to the Prince of Wales’ Own Civil Service Rifles in September 1914 as Sergeant Bugler #2488, and his battalion was sent to France on 15 March 1915. Sydney was a popular figure with the locals in Bruay, where he was billeted, because he spoke fluent French. Sadly, Sydney was killed whilst helping a wounded colleague to safety on 25 October 1916, and is buried in Woods Cemetery in West Flanders. (Find out more about Sydney Moxon here.)

Inspired by this story, we began coming up with ideas about how to musically represent it. Both the children and the parents had lots of suggestions and working together with Rachel and Tim we composed the lyrics and melody of a song which commemorated Sydney. By the end of the workshop we had managed to create a ten minute scene complete with singing, dancing and acting, which began with Sydney (played by Sam) joining up and ended with a telegram being delivered to his family to notify them of his death.

Musical Storytelling

Storytelling workshop with Gareth DaviesOur final workshop was Musical Storytelling, led by LSO Principal Flute and archive expert Gareth Davies, with help from pianist Liz Burley and soprano Gus Hebbert. Gareth told us all the story of Elijah Rennison Hudson, better known as Eli, a famous flautist who had played with the LSO and been involved in World War I both as an entertainer and as a soldier. Eli was in a popular trio with his wife Eleanor (a singer) and sister Winifred (a pianist and flautist), who toured extensively and had a huge hit with ‘The Sunshine of Your Smile’ (which is still available to buy online today!). We were treated to a live performance by Gareth, Gus and Liz, who performed a song that formed part of the Hudson trio’s repertoire.

Eli was also in demand as a soloist and he took full advantage of the new recording industry, making hundreds of recordings. The state of recording technology at the time favoured the sound of higher instruments and Eli recorded many virtuosic pieces for the piccolo. As noted by Gareth in his blog about Eli, by the time the war began Eli had “gained celebrity status as a flute player, a piccolo player, conductor, arranger, music hall star and recording artist.” It was this celebrity status that enabled Eli to travel to France and Belgium in 1914 to entertain the troops. To give us an idea of the kind of piece that Eli would have played for the soldiers, we heard some expert piccolo playing from Gareth.

We then found out that in January 1917, at the age of 40, Eli decided to enlist in the army. Though little is known about what exactly he did in the war due to incomplete military records, Eli ended his military career serving in the 46th Anti Aircraft Company of the Royal Garrison Artillery. Sadly, Eli died in January 1919 from cancer just a few months after the war ended and just a few days after giving his final performance in the Queen’s Hall in London. (Find out more about Eli Hudson here.)

After finding out the tragic end of Eli’s story, the mood was lightened by Gus who taught us all the famous World War I song ‘Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag’, before leading the children in a march around the room. To round up the workshop, Gareth played us some recordings of Eli Hudson himself. Even though the recordings were 100 years old, it was still clear to see why he had been so popular and it was amazing to hear just how fast he could play the piccolo!

Final performance

At 3.15pm it was time for the three groups to come together in Jerwood Hall and show each other the opera scenes they’d created. After each group had quickly rehearsed, the Army Generals began with their scene which told the story of Adolph Borsdorf. Borsdorf, a horn player, was one of the founding members of the LSO but was asked to resign from the Orchestra in October 1915 due to his German heritage. (Find out more about Adolph Borsdorf here.)

Performing the story of Adolf Borsdorf

Up next were my group, the Captains, performing our scene inspired by Sydney Moxon.

Performing the story of Sydney Moxon

Finally it was time for the Majors to perform their scene which was based on Eli Hudson. Gareth stepped in to play the role of Eli, giving yet another virtuosic piccolo performance, and the scene ended with a performance of ‘Goodbye-ee’, which we all joined in with to round off the day.

Performing the story of Eli Hudson

The Family Day was a great success and all the families left the event with smiles on their faces and with a collection of hats, medals and postcards to take home. Many of the attendees seemed to have been inspired both by the stories they’d heard and by the musicians who led and took part in the workshops, and there were lots of families queuing up to ask them questions at the end of the day. More photos of the day can be seen on the LSO St Luke's Facebook page.