«Music can be a channel to think about difficult issues, to respond to them differently than we would to the words in a news report or the cold realism of a photograph.»

Speechless is my personal response to the plight of refugee’s worldwide—my protest and plea to citizens of democratic nations to maintain humanitarian values in the face of an evolving crisis. As many suffer compassion fatigue around this issue, I believe that the multi-dimensional nature of opera can provide a powerful way to think differently about key and complex problems affecting us today. Speechless aims to build empathy with the plight of refugees. It is a work of practice-based research—where I experiment with the potential of opera to create empathy, but also as a vehicle for technical developments in digital music scores. Speechless draws from the 2014 Australian Human Rights Commission report «The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention».

The core of my 22–23 research fellowship with the HIAS was the presentation of the European premiere of my opera Speechless in Hamburg. Speechless is a wordless opera for four vocal soloists, bass orchestra and a choir of refugees. The world premiere took place as part of the Perth International Arts Festival in Australia in 2019.

The first work to be done for this new version in Hamburg was an arrangement of the original orchestral score to suit smaller ensembles, which I completed over some weeks at HIAS. I named this group the «Hamburg Bass ensemble», and found the musicians via networks developed during my frequent concert attendances in Hamburg. The choir was sourced with the assistance of HIAS Fellow and Ukrainian refugee Oksana Koshulko, who assisted me in building «Hamburg Choir for Ukraine» by translating and fielding calls for participation on social media community pages, and later managing the twelve Ukrainian women refugees who agreed to participate. The choir members came from very different singing styles such as pop, choir, jazz, traditional, church and even karaoke, and made a significant contribution to the project. Perhaps the most meaningful comment I received was from one of the choir members: «I realised that the composer Cat Hope wrote a masterpiece of music about the war, not experiencing the war personally, but she somehow truly felt it! All the sounds that the singers, choir and orchestra did were so convincing and truthful. Thank you so much for your work and open, sensitive heart! It was a big pleasure to work with you, Cat» [Facebook, May 2023].

«I experiment
with the potential of opera to create empathy, but
also as a vehicle for technical
developments in digital music scores.»

Whilst I don’t think I was able to «feel» the war, I do think the music somehow drew out some of the emotions of those who had experienced it, and was able to communicate that to the audience. Some of the soloists had also experienced displacement, and shared similar sentiments—Kurdish singer Hêja Netrik, Argentinean born Moxi Biedengel, and Jamaican/German soprano Marcia Lemke Kerne, whose mother was part of the British Windrush generation1.

About Speechless

Speechless was produced with the support of the Hamburg Hochschule for Music and Theatre, the ‹DigiScore› European Research Council Project, the Ligeti Center, Sir Zelman Cowen School of Music and Performance at Monash University and HIAS.

A chamber concert version of the opera was devised with a team from Hamburg, and staged on 3 May, 2023 at the Hamburg Hochschule for Music and Theatre (HfMT), as part of the «Ligeti Festival». It featured the Hamburg Bass Ensemble, the Hamburg Choir for the Ukraine, alongside vocal soloists Frauke Aulbert, Moxi Beidengel, Hêja Netrik and Marcia Lemke-Kern. The conductor was Yalda Zamani. The costumes were created by Pia Preuss and Malaika Friedrich Patoine, and the performance was facilitated by technical director and HfMT academic, Jacob Sello.

The score for «Speechless» uses animated notation—a colour and dynamic graphic notation for music read on networked tablet computers in a software program I had developed with a team of Australian artistic researchers2. Digital notation for music is at the core of my academic research, and this production offered me an opportunity to further experiment with the potential of the digital score. I decided to try and achieve the «big sound» of a larger group by adding electronic effects via the Forum’s Meyer Constellation system and controlling them in the score. During a month-long technical development period with Jacob Sello of the Hamburg Hochschule for Music and Theatre (HfMT), we developed trigger systems for the new audio effects, and built special LED pole lights we installed in the theatre.

Profound, meaningful and mature.

Audience member

I felt at times that the stage was occupied by ghosts, ghosts that wanted to tell us something. It was very hard at times … but I stayed because I wanted to listen until the end. It was worth it.

Audience member

A transformative experience I will remember forever.

Choir member

This is very «democratic» music—meaning (all can) find access to it. The way
sounds and visuals play together is very well done.

Audience member

I designed a set of lighting states for the performance that combined these LED poles and standard overhead theatre lights controlled from the digital score, ensuing close alignment between lights and music. I also outlined some theatrical directions in the digital score, such as the choir coming from within the audience onto the rear of the stage after the opera had begun, later moving forward to join the vocal soloists in a rare moment of bright, white light. A minimal video part, which was projected from the digital score, featured mostly slabs of colour transition in and out of black to work with the lights, but also included some small excerpts of score material that coordinated with the performance. Working closely with conductor Yalda Zamani, I guided her through some of the unique requirements when conducting animated notation scores3.

The production was overwhelmingly well received by the audience and participants, and was live streamed. As a chief investigator in a European Research Council project entitled «DigiScore», several performers and audience members were interviewed about the project.

Cat Hope

Cat Hope is a classically trained flautist, self-taught vocalist, experimental bassist, composer and artistic director of Decibel new music ensemble. Her music is conceptually driven, using graphic scores, acoustic /electronic combinations and digital scores. Cat is Professor of Music at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, where she is part of the «DigiScore» European Research Council project and leader of the music notations research group. Her HIAS Fellowship 2022/2023 was provided by the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg and the federal and state funds acquired by Universität Hamburg in the framework of its Excellence Strategy.

Image Information

Marcia Lemke-Kern performing Speechless (2023), HIAS/Claudia Hoehne

Jaslyn Robertson at the synth (2023), HIAS/Claudia Hoehne

Hêja Netirk performing Speechless (2023), HIAS/Claudia Hoehne

Speechless performance at HfMT (2023), HIAS/Claudia Hoehne