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Various Stages Festival 2020: A Reflection

Over the next couple of weeks, we will be sharing material from the artists and projects involved in the Various Stages Festival. To start this off Freddie reflects on the festival activity, the workshop process, the new connections made and the power of creation through collaboration. 

I thought we were going to make it to the end of the week before flights would begin to get cancelled and borders start to close but everything escalated so quickly and we agonisingly missed out presenting our Various Stages Festival Showcase & Forum at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on 19 March, by just a couple of days.

At first, of course, I was gutted but after a bit of self-isolated reflection I see that we had done nearly all the workshopping from which seven new projects have started to emerge – all very different but all with a quality and style that Mahogany will be keen to support further.

We’re all about process at Mahogany and so the workshops themselves, as well as the selection process, were hugely valuable in and of themselves.

I am not able to express fully the joy that I feel from being in a studio with artists making and testing work or the fascination I have for discussing and analysing dramaturgical structures and scenarios. The Various Stages Festival workshops gave me a chance: to play one of Wojciech Rusin's 3D printed oboes while dreaming up an imaginary musical culture and folklore, to hear Ogutu Muraya talk about post-colonial, mythical storytelling, to have my mind opened by Amble Skuse and Toria Banks about the ways disabled artists navigate the current environment, to contemplate the poetry of Rumi as a detuned harp, prepared piano and five rins play Rolf Hind’s ecstatic music around me, to imagine lying in a flooded rainforest as Lore Lixenburg, Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian and Yfat Soul Zisso sing medieval plain song, among many other things. The inspiration and insight from all the artists in Various Stages will continue to inform my work and enrich my life.


Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Various Stages Festival was the selection process. I loved having Jess Walker, Jamie Man and Martin Berry to bounce off and challenge my thoughts and reasoning. To receive 154 applications was in itself astounding – and it was fascinating to get a cross-section of how and what people are thinking when considering making new opera. Much of the work reflected the mood of uncertainty and anxiety in the world today. I was encouraged by the range and scope of work that people consider to be opera.

The process of selecting the artists for the Various Stages Festival helped me consolidate various of my own thoughts around what makes a work a “Mahogany show”. It’s always been a struggle to express an overview of our work because on the surface they seem so different (recently a meditation opera, an electronic essay-opera collage, a staged cross-over concept album). Two key factors have arisen:

1) We create a theatre of experience – all the artists involved in the Various Stages Festival consciously engage the audience in and around the work. Joining the performers in a hammam or becoming a crowd of hooligans are two of the more extreme examples. The context (the space, the place, the audience) is absolutely crucial and all the artists have had this in mind from the outset.

2) We want to get back to something essential. Of course we want to create new work and discover fresh ways of working but all the projects in the Various Stages Festival – by combining contrasting genres and/or cultures - are explorations into the fundamental role that music and theatre play and have played for human beings across time and place.

Having commissioned 16 new operas between 2014-18, Mahogany has spent the last two years refocussing our business model and re-energising our creative juices. The Various Stages Festival 2020 was to be the launch of a new array of projects and artists that we plan to develop over the next three or four years. The purpose of the showcase was to give our artists a platform to share their initial ideas with colleagues and the industry and to create a space for us all to discuss the future development of these works. But instead we were left with the question: what could have sprung from this day of interconnections? And we are now facing much bigger questions surrounding the future of our industry within a radically changed world. The question that we had planned to start the panel discussion on the day was: From Dream to Reality: how can we help new opera and music theatre to thrive in theatres and opera houses? The questions that confront me now are: Which theatres and opera houses will survive this crisis? Will there be any appetite for new opera? Everything has been flipped on its head. Perhaps it’s no longer a question of: From Dream to Reality but rather: Starting from the current reality, how do we reach our dreams?

Frederic Wake-Walker
Artistic Director, Mahogany Opera 


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Freddie reflects on the Various Stages Festival...
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