PUSH Goes To Westminster: The Power of Community Voices
Five student singers reflect on performing an opera on one of the biggest political stages in the world.
On 28th January 2019, I and four other singers from the university (Lars Thorkildsen, Eleanor Farmer, Ciaran O’Donovan, and Howard Weyman) set off from Chichester to do something we never thought would happen: we were going to be in an opera in the Houses of Parliament.
‘PUSH’ by Howard Moody was first performed in Chichester last January for Holocaust Memorial Day. It tells the story of Simon Gronowski, who was pushed by his mother from a cattle car headed to Auschwitz in 1942, in order to save his life. The opera also touches on other historical injustices and terrors such as the Battle of Hastings and the Calais Migrant Crisis. We joined the production to get some extra stage experience, and do our part to commemorate the 6 million Jews and the unknown numbers of other minorities who were killed. It was a sold-out event with over 100 performers on stage, made up of local choirs and music groups. Chichester’s MP, Gillian Keegan and her husband Michael were in the audience, and on a whim proposed to the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, that the opera be performed in Parliament. To our great surprise, the company were invited to perform it again in the Speaker’s House in the palace itself. Receiving that kind of news at 20 is something that I will never forget.
After a few staging changes and a sold-out preview event at the Chichester Assembly Rooms, the company of 33 adults, 17 children, and three soloists (Lars, Eleanor, and Ciaran) were bundled onto the coach and whisked off to the Capital.
The reality of it all didn’t hit me until we arrived outside New Scotland Yard and were walking up the Embankment. As we stood in line to enter, I remember looking up at the building and thinking about how much history has been made in it, and how we may be the next installment.
The room we performed in was a magnificent red room, draped with damasked fabrics, oak carvings, and life-sized portraits of previous Speakers of the House. Our Green Room was the Royal Bedchamber, which houses the bed that the Monarch sleeps in the night before their coronation. A Monarch hasn’t actually slept there since 1910, but it was still pretty cool!
Lars played Simon, the man whose story the show was based on. He had a very hard job as he never left the stage, steering the audience through as he looked back on his experience. For some scenes he would step into the action and relive the horrors, for some he would narrate from a safe distance. Lars was a great leading man, and really came into his own during the tearful reunion with Simon's father.
"Playing the role of Simon has been both a privilege and and absolute pleasure. Partaking in this opera has given me the chance to develop my skills both vocal and acting, especially with the sublime guidance of the creatives: directors Jill and Kate, and Howard Moody himself. Having Simon at two of the performances gave was a true honour, being able to see him watching his life performed on stage was something I shall remember for a long time! The performance at Speaker’s House, Westminster was again, something truly unique. The confined performance space gave that final piece of intensity that was needed, the audience were a mere metre away. Being able to perform and engage with the audience so close was special. We were able to see their emotions and reactions, making them just as involved in the opera as we were. I am still overwhelmed to this day with the heights that this opera has reached!"
Ellie played Simon’s sister, Ita. She begins at Simon’s side, and ends as a ghost, perished in Auschwitz gas chambers with her mother. Her ethereal voice brought many to tears with its clarity and heart. Ellie told me, "Push has been an enormous learning curve for me. The history, horrors and luck that occurred during the Holocaust are unbelievable. That is, until you see a man speaking who has survived these very same horrors. I am so lucky to be able to be a part of the telling of his life. It is an important story, especially with the level of antisemitism throughout the country. It has also taught me so much about human emotion and I am truly grateful to Susan Legg for recommending the opera. I will never forget this experience."
Due to the nature of the show, the emotional involvement was paramount. The terrifying stalking of Ciaran as the Head Guard accompanied by Howard as one of his underlings certainly aided in the hysteria during the capture of the chorus. The music became dizzying as we were manhandled, hit with (plastic) batons, and tied with rope, crying out for freedom in a room filled with politicians. A moment that really stuck out for me was:
GUARDS: We will close the boarders!
CHORUS: They have closed their minds!
The words resonated around the room, and I don’t think any of us have ever felt so powerful. When I asked Ciaran how he felt, he said that he, "Loved the opportunity to tell a story central to our humanity and its particular relevance now. A wonderfully moving experience, and meeting Simon was an experience that I will never forget. Working with adults and children alike to bring this story to life and allowing the younger generation to experience this first hand alongside us."
Howard was the youngest member of the adult cast and the newest, joining the production in the October of 2018. He said, "It was an absolute privilege to be involved in Howard Moody's PUSH opera. It was an honour to perform this emotionally moving story at such a prestigious venue and to meet Simon himself. This is an experience I will treasure for a very long time!"
I played one of the three members of the Belgian Resistance, who had the monstrous task of stopping the train with a fake signal, and coaxing over 200 captives off the train to help them esacpe. I spent a lot of time weaving in and out of the guards and pulling at the hands of terrified-looking chorus members. The impact it had on the audience to see three young people taking history into their own hands was immense, and an honour to portray on stage.
One of the most stirring moments came just before the finale, in which Simon meets with the Guard who put him on the train. After years of torment from both men, Simon is able to forgive his almost executioner. As we sang the finale, I could see the cast breathing easily, and many audience members wiping their eyes. After a quick drinks reception, with speeches from Simon Gronowski himself, John Bercow, Chichester Mayor Martyn Bell, and Clare Apel (Chair of Chichester Marks Holocaust Memorial Day Comittee), we were back on the bus.
This production was a once in a lifetime spectacle for many reasons: not only is it the first opera to have been staged in Parliament, but it was performed by amateur singers, students, and children. None of us except the professional band were paid. We just did it because we needed to. Now more than ever, the message behind art must take precedence.
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