By Mbeke Waseme
Pegasus Opera Company (POC) was established by Lloyd Newton in1992. He was a Jamaican opera singer who found it difficult to secure work in the UK. The company’s strapline is Harmony in Diversity. They are based in Brixton and were created to represent the diversity of London and of course, to provide opportunities for opera singers from the BAME community.
Pegasus has shown that diversity is positive and possible for over 25 years. POC has flagship status by Signup, the Government’s Music Manifesto National Singing Programme produced by Youth Music. Pegasus is one of six organisations that train singers to work with primary school teachers in London. They also collaborate with the London Youth Orchestra.
I have had an on-going battle with opera. I recall being taken to the opera in London as a high school student and immediately falling asleep very quickly. I love music and theatre. I often went to see plays on my own as a teenager but the opera and I did not get along. The performers, music, and styles did not connect with me. When I booked my ticket for Pegasus Opera Company, I was making another attempt to connect with this genre of music at a Lambeth Council Black History event.
On entering Brixton library, I found a room filled to capacity and dominated by mature black men, women, young people and families. As I sat listening, watching and feeling the performances of familiar songs from, Paul Robeson and Willard White and hearing new local numbers from Barbados alongside Yoruba classical music, I realised I had been converted and loved what I was experiencing! The drama, performance, and pureness of these voices sent my spirits dancing and celebrating. My conversion had taken place with ease.
In 1986, the founder, Lloyd Newton and his successor, Alison Buchanon were both in the highly successful production of Porgy and Bess, produced by the prestigious and elite Glyndebourne Festival Opera in Sussex. This was repeated in 1992 at the Royal Opera House in London. Despite the success of the productions, the doors for most Black Opera singers remained closed. So Pegasus Opera Company was born to address the imbalance. Of course, there were exceptions that offered opportunities, such as The English Touring Opera Company, ran by James Conway who always embraced diversity. The English Touring Opera Company is one of the few opera companies that collaborated with Lloyd.
In 1996, POC received charitable status. Alison was on the board by this time as the Assistant Artistic Director. Sadly, Lloyd died in 2016 from cancer and in answer to the request in his will, Alison took over to continue his legacy and vision.
As a student, Alison was discovered at the age of 13. At 16, she won opera singing competitions as well as excelling in her studies. On requesting to perform a piece by Richard Strauss, the German composer, her singing teacher told her that she could not perform that piece, as there were no known black people in the courts of Germany where it is set.
Many white teachers, have the view that ‘black people have no place in opera unless they are playing the roles of devils or maids’. Alison heard these views many times throughout her career. Fortunately, through Pegasus, she has been able to play a wide range of roles and acknowledges that all stories are human dealing with love, families, happiness, betrayal, etc. One of the most prominent international African American opera singers, Leontyne Price performed Morgan by R Strauss at the White House. She, alongside Jesse Norman who passed away in October 2019 and Willard White, all serve as fabulous role models for Alison. Alison lives between the UK and the US and continues to work and provide opportunities for BAME opera singers.
Alison has had many high points in her career. She won big competitions at The Guildhall School of Music and studied at the elite Curtis Institute of Music in London. More financial investment for diverse groups like Pegasus now exist which is positive and has resulted in more people experiencing opera with diverse castes, making it an accessible music genre.
POC performed at a gala at Bloomsbury Theatre in honour of Stephen Lawrence. POC has given four performances at Sadler’s Wells Theatre of Koanga by Frederick Delius, to mark the bicentenary of the abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade where it attracted a forty-five percent BAME audience. They will continue to champion the works of Black composers and explore new commissions in 2020 that may include an opera on the Windrush story and the Brixton uprisings.
In the UK, opera is presented as a predominantly white art experience. However, as I looked around the room at Brixton library, the black and brown faces were all fully engaged and as thrilled as I was at viewing this experience. Alison’s parents are from Jamaica and Barbados, like Jamaican singer Willard White many Caribbean children grew up with pianos at home or had access to them. Trinidad has produced many opera singers and artists like Courtney Pine and Dean Fraser who were both classically trained.
Pegasus continues to do work in schools and to have a weekly choir that meets at Brixton library every Monday. It is a community choir, open to anyone and a great opportunity to meet new people and promote health and well-being.
What are your plans for the evening of December 18th? The Pegasus Opera Company is staging a special show on on that date at Lambeth Town Hall (see above). For more information about the show and Pegasus Opera Company see link https://bit.ly/2X1gEm3