Talking Heads: Roxanna Panufnik on her new opera Dalia

Garsington Opera has had a brilliant summer. With stellar reviews for its productions of Orfeo, Così fan tutte, Rusalka and The Turn of the Screw, the festival has further cemented its status as an unmissable part of the British classical music calendar. And yet there is one more ace up the sleeve in the form of Dalia, a community cricket opera from composer Roxanna Panufnik and librettist Jessica Duchen about a Syrian girl who triumphs over adversity to follow her dream. The opera engages local participants of all ages from diverse backgrounds, including choirs from Syria and Palestine.

The parallels between opera and the most English of sports are surprisingly logical. Test cricket, it could be argued, becomes a four act drama – one for each innings – while the relatively recent phenomenon of 20-20 cricket pivots effortlessly to a pacey, two-act thriller. For some reason composers have tended to shy away from the stumps in creating works with bat and ball, but under Panufnik’s guidance Dalia strides confidently out to bat. As the composer arrives at the batting crease to receive an over of questions from Arcana (enough cricketing puns! – Ed) she takes up the story of what is by all accounts an amazing project.

“Thank you”, she says modestly, “and without wanting to sound too egotistical, I agree! It’s grown so much, beyond what we could have imagined with this involvement from with the choirs from Syria and Palestine. It’s just been extraordinary. We never dreamed it would reach the parts that is already has.”

This is not the first time Panufnik and Duchen have worked together on the Garsington stage and pit. “These are always large affairs”, says the composer, “and for the last one we did, Silver Birch, there were 180 people on stage! It was always going to be big, because if you’re going to do something that’s all inclusive, then it’s got to be inclusive for all. That’s the principle behind it.”

The issues at the heart of Dalia (above) could hardly be more relevant to today’s world. “When it was commissioned, and the concept evolved two years ago, there was a refugee crisis but now it has been hugely magnified, with Afghanistan and Ukraine. It just seems even more relevant.”

The collaboration with Jessica Duchen was a natural fit. “Jess and I are old, old friends, possibly reaching 30 years!” she says warmly. “We’ve done lots together. She’s not just my opera librettist, I can count on her for translations of poetic text too. She is very much my writing partner, although she has done other operas for Garsington. This is only my second but she has a fourth on the way I think. That’s another thing that’s mushroomed!”

Rehearsing with the choirs began on Zoom. “I wasn’t involved with the early rehearsals, they were led by our director Karen Gillingham”, she explains. “I haven’t been directly involved in rehearsing them, but the initial contact with the Amwaj Choir in Palestine came from a friend of mine who runs the Bethlehem Culture Festival,  which has just had its second season in London. She was saying that I must hear this choir, and was there anything they could do? It couldn’t be more perfect, and I had an arrangement of Dalia’s main song, which I distilled for them. In the opera it is spread out over various parts, but they performed it absolutely beautifully! They were rehearsed by their music directors in Palestine, and they sent me an edit, but other than commenting on balance my input was minimal. It’s really wonderful what they came up with.”

The musical language of Dalia’s Song is striking and moving, an indication of the composer’s aim to bring forward the positive identifying aspects of faith and culture. “The principle behind a lot of the multi-faith and multicultural work that I’ve done over the last 20 years or so has been that whenever we hear about these other cultures or these faiths it’s usually in the context of conflict, especially on the news and in social media. I’ve really been on a mission to show that there are such beautiful aspects of these cultures and faiths and so much that we have in common. I think it’s really, really important to keep reminding people of that.”

As a lighter aside, could this be the first ever opera we about cricket? “Well, as my husband says, and he is a cricket lover – cricket is an opera!” She reveals several first-hand inspirations from the England touring party. “I have had fantastic help and support from a couple of members of the Barmy Army, including Billy the trumpeter. He let me use his mariachi motif in the cricket song and dance number. The pianist Anna Tillbrook is also a Barmy Army member, and she has been brilliant – and another person who has been a key consultant is the BBC cricket commentator Eleanor Oldroyd. She was very involved in the libretto with Jess. She lives near me, and we became great friends a few years ago. She has been very involved in making sure we have all the right terminology and that the cricket action scenes make sense and are all correct.”

Roxanna relished the challenges of writing for the assembled forces. “Every commission that I fulfill, whether it’s for people that are 100% professional and very experienced or if it’s for amateurs, is absolutely tailor made for the people that I’m writing it for. I’ve done an opera for Garsington before, and so I had an idea of the community and youth elements here. Throughout the piece, and I do this with every commission, I send sketches and MIDI files to the people I’m writing for, for constant input and collaboration. That way there are no nasty surprises at the end, and everybody knows that they’re getting something that they are not going to be struggling with.”

Panufnik was not beyond stretching her performers, however. “Having said that, it is a little bit challenging for our community chorus, but when I did that for Silver Birch they rose magnificently to the challenge. We also have these incredible people training them, fantastic coaches who are so talented. It’s a great position to be in. Lea Cornthwaite, who’s coaching the chorus made MIDI files of all the parts, so everybody had stuff to listen to and learn before they actually come to rehearsal.

The effect on the performers is clear from the video. “It is, and it has been emotional for me too. Sometimes I think, “What am I doing with my career; am I doing anything remotely useful? It feels like navel gazing, but when you see the effect on people who are either moved by it or who gain confidence through doing this it’s really gratifying. I’m really grateful to be able to do that. I also hope it will give the performers confidence to try other things they wouldn’t normally do. They might say, “I didn’t know anything about opera, but I went for it and succeeded. So let’s have a go at this!”

It was important for Panufnik to integrate Syrian modes into her musical language. “Dalia’s Song is actually a very well known Syrian folk song, Hal Asmar Ellon. Most of the people in the Palestinian and Syrian choirs knew that tune, and it immediately gave them something to sit between this completely new musical experience and what they know. That mode really influenced the rest of the piece. It was the first song I wrote in the opera, and everything grew out of that.”

Roxanna herself has had a varied musical upbringing, well beyond that handed down to her as daughter of the Polish composer Sir Andrezj Panufnik, who took up British citizenship in the 1950s. “I’ve always loved Middle Eastern music, South Asian music and African music”, she explains. “I did one of those ancestral DNA tests, and discovered that I am actually 1% Egyptian, which explains my love of that kind of music. The test also said I had 1.8% from the Levant region, which is probably through my mother’s Jewish heritage. I also love Balkan music, and I have Balkan DNA as well. I’m a bit of a musical nomad!”

It is gratifying to see her channelling this unique DNA and those influences into a stage work. “The thing about this opera and the people is that I think it’s a good reflection of the cultural mix in the UK today. I think it’s really important that we mirror that.” The opera addresses racism, too. “There is no shying away from that.”

With the current plight of Ukraine, it feels valuable to have such a vivid reminder of the plight of Afghanistan and Syria too. “I am very worried”, she confesses. “It was amazing, the outpouring of sympathy for Afghans fleeing Afghanistan last August, and for Ukraine now, but I worry that people are forgetting that there are still something like 11,500 Afghans here still waiting to be housed, and languishing as one family to one hotel room. I would really want that to be visible still.”

Panufnik is a busy composer. “I’m very excited that having written so much in the last 20 years for Christian worship, I’m just finishing off a commission for the Liberal Jewish synagogue, a piece for their Yom Kippur service in October, so that’s my first Jewish liturgical commission. I’m also writing a piano piece which will take its inspiration from Iraqi Jewish music, for the pianist Margaret Fingerhut. The Jewish stuff is coming up quite a bit. Although I’m a practising Catholic, because my mother is Jewish I am technically Jewish, and feel those roots very strongly. I’m really excited about that.”

How refreshing it is to have a positive discussion about religion. “It’s great to be talking about religion, like you say, in a celebratory way rather than talking about conflicts. I’m sure one of the biggest things about religion is being mindful of other people’s beliefs, isn’t it? It’s just nice to be thinking about that, and also being aware of all the things we have in common. During Lent, I remember some lovely nun friends who suggested taking something up rather than stopping anything. Thanks to their inspiration I took up reading scriptures from other faiths. Last year I read the Quran, and this Lent I’ve read the Hindu scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita. It’s so exciting to see how much there is in common with our faith, in the moral principles especially. I find it incredibly uplifting, and I want other people to be aware of that, which is why I try and put it in my work.”

Panufnik’s eclecticism as a composer is illustrated by her recent projects, including a commission from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Youth Chorus. “I took a piece of my father’s, the Five Polish Peasant Songs, for unison upper voices and a few wind instruments, and I orchestrated it with some new translations of the words. They’re funny folk tales, with little twists, all based on Polish folk songs. Then just recently I have had the premiere of a new work (God’s Mirror) in Bath Abbey, which they commissioned for the 25th anniversary of their Girls Choir. Then there is the premiere of the new piece I wrote for Margaret Fingerhut, Babylonia, at Ryedale Festival on 20 July.“ After that, of course, the baton – or should we say, cricket ball – passes to Dalia.

Dalia looks set to be a wonderfully uplifting and thought provoking work for Garsington, not to mention an important milestone in the careers of its performers. More details on the work and its performances, which take place at 7.30pm on 28, 30 and 31 July (which includes a 3pm matinee), can be found at the Garsington Opera website, while to book directly click here