A Song for the Century

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Published in The Source Newspaper on February 9, 2016.

Toronto-based soprano Neema Bickersteth performs Century Song, a hybrid work of film, song and dance that explores the identities and roles experienced by a woman throughout the 20th century, in an effort to “inform one’s own identity” as it links to the past. The performance will be held at the Cultch theatre from Feb. 2 to Feb. 6 as part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.

The show features a series of classical songs performed by Bickersteth along with projections of shifting visuals that paint a vivid picture of her character travelling through time.

“It’s kind of like a theatricalized recital,” Bickersteth explains.

In preparation for the performance Bickersteth began to explore questions about her own heritage as research for the character.

“As I was singing the first piece by Rachmaninoff, I realized I was singing it as if I was a white European – and that was the perspective I had taken to become these characters. I don’t think about becoming whatever a black woman would have been in that day. From there, I started to ask, who really is this woman going through time?”

Singing through time

Growing up in a small town in Alberta, Bickersteth is a first-generation Canadian who began singing lessons at age 8.

With parents emigrating from Sierra Leone in the 1960s, Bickersteth’s curiosity about the realities faced by those with her heritage throughout the 20th century began to emerge while developing the repertoire for Century Song.

“As a first generation Canadian, it’s not quite like being an immigrant, but there are unique questions to ask when it comes to understanding your past, and fully linking this to your identity now.”

One of Bickersteth’s inspirations for the show is a photograph of her great, great grandmother.

“In the photo she’s standing alone in a very european-cut dress, but the material is african. And I began to ask, who is this woman? Where did she come from? Who did she belong to? I feel like those questions really fed into how this piece came into being.”

Starting at around 1915, the performance chronicles what life would have been like through the decades of the 20th century, paying homage to the past’s struggle and uniqueness.

“I am Canadian, I am a woman, and I am black, and today I sing opera,” says Bickersteth. “We can tell stories from our own perspective and it’s about what we have to say within our own journeys that is reflected in all of us.”

Other inspiration for the show was taken from two pieces of literature with parallel themes. Virginia Wolfe’s novel Orlando, and an essay by Alice Walker, In search of our mother’s gardens.

Both of these works chronicle an exploration of identity by travelling through time and reflecting on the past.

“Something that really inspires me in Alice Walker’s essay is this idea of an inner artist. Like the search of my own identity through this piece, this woman eventually makes her way to the state of ‘now.’”

For Bickersteth, Century Song revealed some very personal insights into understanding her identity as a performer:

“One of my biggest realizations was that I can be the protagonist in a story. As an actress, I am often a slave or some stereotypical black female character. That is fine, but I’m not that person. I’m Neema who lives in Canada, and I can be someone that the audience connects to.”

Music as words

Bickersteth’s performance features a range of classical works by Rachmaninoff, John Cage and an original piece by Canadian composer Reza Jacobs. Each new song moves the character towards a new direction, and chronicles a different piece of the identity making up the character’s history.

Jacobs points out that a unique aspect of Century Song is that all the music is wordless, a style of singing known as vocalese.

“With vocalese, we want to cover an emotional palate, and there is certainly a virtuosic element to this. Since there are no words and just vowels, it’s about the musical lines and the emotion really comes through.”

While Bickersteth is the main performer, a pianist and percussionist join to link the different stages of the performance.

“I would describe it as an opera recital remixed and on steroids,” says Jacobs.

For more information, visit www.pushfestival.ca

NewspaperNoah Asanias