How Aria? Stephen James Smith

Friday, 3 January, 2020
Stephen James Smith Photo By Babs Daly Grace Photography December 2017 Edit Bgd 3177

We've had the pleasure of working with poet Stephen James Smith on How Aria?, a community opera project in partnership with St. Patrick's Mental Health services and First Fortnight Festival over the last few months. Read below to see what he's been up to.

You’ve been carrying out workshops with the service users at St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services, what exactly have you been up to and what is the goal of these workshops?

I've done 6 workshops in St. Pat's, exploring all sorts of poetry. I've been bringing in different poetry books for prompts, we've watched some YouTube videos to hear poems in the poets own voice and each week we've been writing a haiku in the class, with a view to include these in the final performance piece.

What can people expect to hear at the performance in January?

They will hear a culmination of a collaboration between myself and those in the workshops. Composer Amanda Feery has responded to that with music and she has also written text to compliment what was produced in the workshops. There'll be an amazing mix of musicians that will be working on Amanda's score. We'll also have some other musical performances, a poem or two from me and some of the participants will also share their thoughts. So it should be an emotive but fun evening of sharing.

What was your attitude to opera coming in to this project?

I'm a pretty open minded person (or I like to think I am). I had been to the opera before, some I liked, others I didn't, but that's the way with art, it's subjective. While I might be a poet it doesn't mean all poems have to resonate with me. So my attitude to opera is... "OK lets hear what you've got for me today!". I saw INO's recent production of Cinderella in the Grand Canal Theatre and it was awe-inspiring, it was such a spectacle and it underlined to me the team effort that goes into putting on an opera. You need a small army to make it happen!

What has it been like working as part of How Aria? Is it very different from what you’re used to, or are the creative processes familiar to you?

I've not felt too out of my depth, ultimately I've been doing workshops which I'm used to and focusing on the text. I have had to look at the structure of an opera, I've found an aria can be about 500 words and last 20 minutes. If that was a poem I'd say it in 3 minutes or under, so I've had to look at how text can be elongated and what can be achieve with sparseness. Amanda was really helpful here given her experience of adding music to text.

How have you found working with a composer? Is working with music something you had done before?

I love working with music, I've worked with loads of musicians before from all backgrounds and genres, this always excites me! In truth I took a backseat as Amanda had her brief and way of working, we had a few meetings and Amanda played a piece of music she composed from a few tweets she saw online which was incredible. So the credit has to go to Amanda for responding and composing. I basically facilitated the workshops to help amplify the thoughts and feels of the people who attended.

What do you hope that the participants of this project will take away from the experience?

Oh god, I really hope they feel represented in it. People were so open and honest with me that I feel a duty to hold all they shared with the care it deserves. I hope they feel heard, I hope they feel inspired to continue to write and be as brave as they were along the creative process. I hope they know that I, and I'm sure Amanda also, have approached this from a place of compassion. To be honest the only thing I really care about is how the participants feel at the end, nobody else matters as much!

What’s next for you? Where can people follow your work or see you next?

I've 5 events I'm directly involved with for First Fortnight (this being one), I'll be volunteering at others as well. My next Dublin gig in on the 22nd of January in the Pepper Canister Church for TradFest and then I hope to do a European tour in the Spring and a UK and Irish tour in late 2020. But I'm sure I'll have other events on before that. So go to my website or find me on social media @SJSwords for more info.

How Aria? is part of January's First Fortnight festival and will feature percussion ensemble Bangers and Crash as well as Bríd Ní Ghruagáin (mezzo soprano) and Domenica Williams (soprano). The performance is generously supported by the ABL Aviation Opera Studio.