- We Two – a setting of eight poems by Walt Whitman for bass baritone and piano to be premiered at the Mozarteum, Salzburg on 27 November
- The Man with Night Sweats – a cycle of Thom Gunn poetry centred around the death of friends with AIDS, receives its world premiere at the London Song Festival on 4 December, in the same week as World Aids Day
Iain Bell’s love affair with the voice is evidenced by his prolific output of vocal works, earning him the attention of many of the greatest singers of our generation – including Diana Damrau, Nathan Gunn and Jamie Barton – who have performed his music at venues including Wigmore Hall, Carnegie Hall and the Munich Opera Festival.
Bell’s latest two new works will be heard for the first time within the space of a week in Salzburg and London.
The AIDS crisis brought loneliness, death and isolation to hundreds of thousands of men in the 1980s and threatened to isolate the LGBT+ community. Both works set words that explore differing facets of the gay experience, and it is fitting that World Aids Day on 1 December falls in the week of the works being heard for the first time.
We Two is a setting of eight poems from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass for bass-baritone and piano. The poems explore the twin passions of his work; the joy and wonder of nature and the ecstasy of male physical contact. From the moment of lust at first sight through to the end of a relationship, we journey through Whitman’s meditations, love and intimacy. The world premiere on 27 November is performed by American bass baritone Douglas Williams and pianist Levi Hammer in a recital exploring Whitman’s sensitive lyricism.
The Man with Night Sweats was commissioned by Nigel Foster and the London Song Festival. It is a cycle of Thom Gunn’s poetry from his eponymous collection that centres around the death of friends with AIDS. Baritone Jarrett Ott and pianist Nigel Foster will give the world premiere at the London Song Festival on 4 December. The concert will be filmed and broadcast by Artist Digital on the London Song Festival’s YouTube channel.
Iain Bell commented on The Man with Night Sweats, ‘I was delighted to receive a commission from the London Song Festival to compose a song-cycle for their 2020 series. For my 2019 opera ‘Stonewall’ – commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising for New York City Opera, I was honoured to be able to give voice to so many members of my LGBTQ+ family. This in turn inspired me to tell other ‘queer’ stories, so when approached by LSF, my mind immediately went to Thom Gunn’s ‘Night Sweats’ collection, having been steered in their direction a couple of years ago by broadcaster and journalist Christopher Cook. Gunn’s collection is a response to and observation of the AIDS crisis during its ‘height’ in the 1980s. Upon repeated readings of the poems, it soon became clear that a narrative could be fashioned; that of a man seeing those around him dying of AIDS, whilst being aware he too is HIV+. This man’s journey greatly appealed to the ‘operatic’ in me, giving me the opportunity to create a near-monodrama in song cycle form, bearing witness to his compassion, grief, hope and terror. It is worth noting that though largely a manageable virus for those with access to the requisite health care, there are many globally who don’t have this access, nor access to the information and education to prevent infection, leading to 1.7 million new cases in 2019 alone. More personally, the wounds left by HIV/AIDS in the LGBTQ+ community are yet to heal. This cycle is my personal tribute to those who have braved this journey.’
2019 saw the premiere of two new operas. The first, ‘Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel’ opened at English National Opera with a cast including Josephine Barstow, Susan Bullock, Lesley Garrett, Marie McLaughlin, Natalya Romaniw, Janis Kelly and Alan Opie. This was followed by ‘Stonewall’ at New York City Opera – commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising. ‘Stonewall’ went on to be shortlisted as one of the best new operas of 2019 at the Annual Excellence in Opera Awards and was cited as one of WQXR’s best classical concerts of 2019.
Highlights in early-2020 before COVID hit included the UK-premiere of ‘Much To Be Done’ (the choral finale from ‘Stonewall’) by The Pink Singers at Cadogan Hall along with the first UK-outing of Bell’s second Concert Ayre ‘Tom O’Bedlam’ with baritone James Cleverton. The first revival of ‘Jack the Ripper: the Women of Whitechapel’ was due to be happening now at Opera North with a subsequent UK tour but has been postponed to a future season due to the pandemic.
27 November, Mozarteum, Salzburg. Purchase tickets here
4 December, London Song Festival, Purchase tickets here