• S/vib/pf/vc
  • 10 min

Programme Note

Scenes from Autistic Bedtimes (2012-13) ‘Any encounter with disability is for most people an encounter with difference.’ Linked by a unifying leitmotif ('It is showertime; it is bedtime'), these three scenes from a projected chamber opera were workshopped in Leeds, with Natalie Raybould among others, during Cheryl’s tenure as DARE Cultural Fellow in Opera Related Arts in association with Opera North and the University of Leeds (2010-12). ‘I look back on my DARE Fellowship as one of the turning points of my composing career. Being able to concentrate on writing for two years, and having access to such a wealth of operatic and academic knowledge and experience was incredibly valuable, artistically and personally.’

The libretto was the idea of Stuart Murray, Professor of Contemporary Literatures and Film at the University of Leeds, Director of the multidisciplinary Leeds Centre for Medical Humanities, and author of Representing Autism (2008), the pioneering book on the condition – one ‘surrounded by misunderstanding and often defined by contestation and argument’. ‘I do think,’ he's said,* ‘that historically the representation of autism has largely been a history of misrepresentation. The classic example is that there are still many many people who believe that if you are autistic you necessarily have special skills, that you're good at maths or memory or calculation or music - a cultural narrative going back to Dustin Hoffman's [autistic savant] character in Barry Levinson's film Rain Man from the 1980s.

'Our scenario is about a parent taking a child up to bed. Repeatedly. A lot to do with autism is about repetition. I really like the idea of repeating a whole sequence of events with slight differences. Originally I intended just the internal voice of a child who cannot communicate verbally. But once I'd written the first experience of bed time from that point of view, I almost immediately, without stopping, went on to the reaction of the parent. So each evening, each bedtime, we have these two voices - competing on the same topic from different angles, asking questions, responding to the moment. Having filmed (and shared) the spinning, twirling, very idiosyncratic movements of the younger of my two autistic songs, Lucas, was something I was also keen to convey. The thing I love about opera is that it’s all so fantastically artificial, in so many ways so brilliantly preposterous. Those great moments when you realize that it's through the seemingly very artificial that you actually get to a wonderful kind of truth telling.'

For the condition to be shown as it is - manifestation not metaphor - lies at the core of Autistic Bedtimes.

* 'Autism and Opera - Two Weeks of Autistic Bedtimes', DARE interview, 21 June 2013

© Ates Orga