British opera singer creates work to reveal humanity of enslaved ancestors

A leading British opera singer is developing a work based on the music of his enslaved ancestors in Barbados as a way of examining complex historical events and highlighting forms of resistance.

Peter Brathwaite and the Royal Opera House (ROH) will present Insurrection: A Work in Progress to audiences in March, inviting feedback from the public that will shape the opera’s next stages.

Brathwaite, a baritone who has sung for the ROH, English National Opera, Opera North, English Touring Opera and Glyndebourne on Tour, has drawn on family history and historical research for the work.

Enslaved people were forced to live under draconian codes that denied them basic human rights. Brathwaite said those in power used the codes to target music “because they were very concerned that enslaved people were using music to send messages, and incite rebellion and revolution. They wanted to exert their power to control black culture.”

But music could not be suppressed, he said. “These folk traditions are really strong; they’re about resistance and they’re about remembrance of former freedoms, but they’re also about laying something down that can be passed on to future generations.”

In 1816 enslaved people in Barbados revolted, burning cane fields and destroying property. The rebellion lasted nearly two weeks before the colonial governor managed to restore order. By then, the insurgents had caused property damage worth more than £170,000 – about (£10.5m) today.

Their folk songs survived as an oral tradition and were now part of the national curriculum in Barbados, Brathwaite said. “They tell us a great deal about enslaved communities in Barbados, so they’re hugely important.”

Insurrection, his operatic work, will also examine music used by enslavers as “a weapon, to suppress”, including pro-slavery propaganda songs.

Brathwaite said in many communities, “enslaved people were infiltrating seemingly English sounds with polyrhythms, melodic lines that were very much from west Africa. Their persistence and resilience allowed them to hold on to what was theirs and create something that was wholly new.”

Insurrection was “about scratching away, trying to expose how people were fighting for their rights and asserting their humanity”.

The singer is collaborating on the opera with the director Ellen McDougall, the writer Emily Aboud and the music director Yshani Perinpanayagam. The Barbadian pianist and composer Stefan Walcott is the cultural consultant.

During “semi-staged sharings” of the work in progress at the ROH’s Linbury theatre in London, audiences – including schoolchildren and community groups – will be invited to take part in discussions on the themes of Insurrection.

“We’re trying to create a more collaborative approach,” said Sarah Crabtree, the theatre’s creative producer. Exposing a work in progress to the public was “scary but exciting”, she added.

Brathwaite said: “I would hate for an opera to be produced in a silo. We wanted something agile and responsive to what people think and the stories they want to see on stage. So a big part of this process is getting feedback.”

He said he hoped the final work would include the stories of his black ancestors, Addo and Margaret. Addo was owned by John Brathwaite, one of the opera singer’s white ancestors and the owner of four plantations in Barbados. Margaret was the daughter of another prominent white enslaver and an unknown enslaved African mother.

The couple, who had 11 children, were freed – Addo for “good conduct” during the 1816 rebellion – and went on to own slaves themselves. “It’s quite a difficult history to stomach, really, because I was looking for a hero, this Roots-style Kunta Kinte character, a freedom fighter.

“But this history has shown me that people resisted in different ways. And for Addo, it was obviously about securing a future for his family. There are some difficult truths in history, it’s not as black and white as we sometimes want it to be. It’s really very complicated.”

The trauma of slavery “runs very deep, and we still see the consequences today”, said Brathwaite. “But generations upon generations of black families have erased a lot of this. My mother never knew anything about the history of enslavement growing up in Barbados in the 1950s. No one really spoke about it.

“I really want to find a way of using opera – music-making and storytelling – to find justice and healing for all of us.”

• Insurrection: A Work in Progress is at the Linbury theatre in central London from 21-25 March, with tickets from £5.