Dart’s Love

River Dart, River Dart, Every year Thou claim’st a Heart

Devon Folk Legend

A glorious, desperate love story with a dark twist, set in and starring a memorable river created by a trio of fabulous sopranos, Dart’s Love is a treat for the eyes and ears . The imaginative range is truly exhilarating. The music is stunning, full of gorgeous harmonies over which the voices float and intertwine. Collison’s libretto is brilliant: simple, elegant, noble words, well-phrased and well set, and I enjoyed every one of them. The opera is short, and the libretto is accordingly lean, but she deftly creates character and sets tone in a small space: it is intensely satisfying, rather like a great short story.

Operissima, August 2013

In 2013, the composer Kerry Andrew and I were commissioned to write an original 1 Act opera for the Tete a Tete Contemporary Opera Festival. Kerry’s only brief was that, being a keen wild-swimmer herself, she wanted to write a piece about water – and ideally, about a wild-swimmer – so that she could experiment with writing ‘watery’ sounds for voices and instruments. After extensive research into water spirits, good and bad (Lancashire’s Jenny Greenteeth, the Pondweed Demon, was a strong contender at one point) I chanced upon the Devon legend about the River Dart – that it claims one life a year in return for keeping the rest of the locals safe. What if, I wondered, the river was in love with a handsome wild-swimmer who came to swim regularly in her waters. And what if, one day, he decided to bring along his girlfriend? Passion, jealousy, fury, revenge – all the key operatic ingredients were there in this simple idea. Let’s just say it doesn’t end well…

Fish flash in my crystal waters
Birds sing in my whispering reeds
Weeds wave in my shifting currents
As I dance
Round and round
And up and down
And to and fro
And on and on.
For Him.
To return.

Bill Bankes-Jones, the Artistic Director of Tete a Tete, directed a beautifully simple and imaginative production of ‘Dart’s Love’, putting the trio of female singers playing the River Dart on swings to evoke the shifting waters.

The opera was very well received and went on to win the Best Staged Work at the 2014 British Composer Awards. I do wish someone else would put it on – it’s really good!

Review by One Stop Arts

Dart’s Love opens with three sparkling girls suspended on swings over the stage, asleep. Sighs, kisses, gulps, rustles, laughs and yawns emanate from the trio, slowly at first, then building into a pattern, a rhythm and finally a song. The three sopranos (Rebecca Askew, Rebecca Thorn and Hazel Holder) are the voice of the River Dart, sleepy and relaxed, glorying in her own beauty: “fish flash in my crystal waters”. Their voices echo, shadow and lap against one another, and we quickly see they are the river, too, as the lazy motion of their swinging evokes the river’s roll and swell. The use of the trio is in the best tradition of Celtic ideas of female divinity, where what is female is expressed as three: the crone, the matron, and the virgin; and it is also the natural musical habitat of Kerry Andrew, the composer, who is one of the three brilliant singers who make up the Juice Vocal Ensemble. She turns out also to be a talented composer.

It’s surprising, when you think about it, how many operas are about, or feature, water. Rusalka is a water nymph. The Volga surges through Janacek’s Katya Kabanova. Der Ring opens in the Rhine. So the idea of an opera about wild swimming should not astonish us: rivers are natural musical subjects, particularly when combined with love, desire and death in the best operatic tradition (and Dart’s Love gives us all of those). Human beings, moreover, swam in fresh water for thousands of years before swimming pools were invented; yet there somehow remains an air of the revolutionary about wild swimming: an intoxicating gulp of the wild. Kerry Andrew brings us into this world so vividly that, as the Swimmer (the gorgeous Grant Doyle) arrived on the riverbank, I found myself holding my breath as he jumped in.

Dart’s Love was inspired by the legend of the River Dart: “River Dart, River Dart, every year thou claims’t a heart.” We soon see the Swimmer arrive, to the River’s ecstatic delight; then, to her horror, a few minutes later his Girlfriend (brilliantly played by Claire Wild) turns up. The furious River, in a brilliant witch’s tirade, summons every brook, stream, pond and lake to her aid, and drowns the unsuspecting girlfriend. Victorious, the River exults that she again has the Swimmer to herself, in a brilliant display of inhuman, uncomprehending, obsessive love. But the Swimmer, heartbroken, leaves vowing never to return; and the River is left, slowly, to acknowledge her loss. It is a short, but dramatic work.

The music is stunning, full of gorgeous harmonies underpinned by warm touches of electric guitar and bass clarinet, over which the voices float and intertwine. The singing was powerfully good; the balance between the trio and the instruments took a little time to warm up at first, but patience was soon well repaid. Besides the trio and the two solo singers, music was provided by CHROMA (Stewart French on guitar, Stuart King on clarinet and bass clarinet, and Steve Gibson on percussion), with Ian Ryan on piano, conducted by Timothy Burke, all of whom played with real skill and feel, achieving an astonishing array of sounds. The imaginative range of Dart’s Love is truly exhilarating.

Tamsin Collison’s libretto is brilliant: simple, elegant, noble words, well-phrased and well set, and I enjoyed every one of them. The opera is short, and the libretto is accordingly lean, but she deftly creates character and sets tone in a small space: it is intensely satisfying, rather like a great short story. Tim Meacock’s set design was unforgettable, and the swings were a particularly inspired choice. The costumes – from sparkly dresses to the high-heeled trainers and pink swimsuit worn by the hapless Girlfriend – were perfect. Above all, a sense of real relish and joy radiated from the stage; it was clear everyone loved what they were doing as much as we did! Bill Bankes-Jones, director, has created a fabulous production of Dart’s Love of which Kerry Andrew can be rightly proud. I can’t wait to see her next one. And, in the meantime, I have a sudden urge to swim…