Anti-racist Instagram Opera: Shaping and Rethinking the Theatrical Form
Feiyang Xue
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Anti-racist Instagram Opera: Shaping and Rethinking the Theatrical Form

“I think of the images and text surrounding the operatic content as the ‘set’ and ‘props’ of the production; this content builds the world within which the chamber opera sits.” -- Jasmin Kent Rodgman

As a response to the prejudice shown towards the East and South East Asian diaspora during the pandemic, the anti-racist Instagram opera, nineteen ways of looking, a constellation of music, image, dance and spoken word, will go live to the public on 17 November.

Mixing social media with social realism, documentary with fantasy, the Instagram opera offers nineteen individual experiences of the pandemic - nineteen threads that relate to racism, isolation, media and mental health which will be rolled out via daily Instagram posts.

Each Instagram square will contain chapters of this semi-linear narrative, unfolding post by post, unravelling in real time for the audience. Verbatim quotes taken from people’s social media will be juxtaposed with a poetic libretto by Chen Si’an, contributing from Beijing. Dance will be conducted by choreographer and dance artist Si Rawlinson and the project’s dramaturg Jude Christian.

The voices of nineteen ways of looking will be the distinctive sounds of countertenor Keith Pun and contralto Hildur Berglind Arndal. The highest male and lowest female vocal registers are rare and beautiful tones that conjure feelings of awe, unfamiliarity and angst throughout the opera, performing Chen’s libretto in multiple languages, wordless and experimental.

Jasmin Kent Rodgman, 19 Ways of Looking, Hildur Berglind Arndal

Commissioned by Chinese Arts Now (CAN), the UK’s leading platform for British Chinese artists, this highly unique virtual production used technology to shape and rethink the theatrical form. It embraces the challenges of lockdown and social distancing using arguably one of the world’s most important platforms to create art, perform to and interact with audiences. As a result, it is also one of the most accessible operatic productions out there in the world, housed on a free-to-use and international platform.

The idea of creating an online opera came to Jasmin Kent Rodgman the composer and director of nineteen ways of looking when she was watching live streamed performances and concerts during lockdown. The inconsistency within these online performances and the fact that people’s attention spans have been significantly diverted to social media inspired her to use these platforms to house a production. “Opera uses music, movement and theatre to tell stories for us on the stage, so why not use those tools to recreate a production on Instagram?” says Jasmin.

Jasmin Kent Rodgman, portrait 2, photo Jonathan Hines

Nineteen ways of looking is centred around the discrimination and racism faced by the BESEA diaspora; the rising prejudice as a result of the pandemic as well as the existing stereotypes and tropes that the community has faced since the diaspora began to settle in the UK. Equally, it explores the shared global experience of isolation, a longing for connection, otherness and the media we consume on a day-to-day basis. “nineteen ways of looking is about empathy or moments where there is a lack thereof. Through bringing together a plurality of voices, it’s a constant reminder of humanity,” says Jasmin.

Jasmin’s favourite part of the production is Inbetweener, which as she describes is a huge emotional climax in the work. In this part, Chen Si’an’s beautiful libretto is based on an incredibly sad, real-life story about a Wuhan-born woman living in London, who lost both parents in quick succession to the pandemic earlier this year. Mourning the loss of her entire family, she feels unable to return to China but at the same time faces a level of prejudice in London unlike anything before. Feeling trapped between two worlds, drifting, this aria and story represent loss and otherness on the personal, cultural and societal levels.

Jasmin Kent Rodgman, 19 Ways of Looking, Trotters (Photo credit, Ning Zhou, Food Stylist, Premila van Ommen)

The project reaches out to the British East and Southeast Asian community in solidarity, very much inspired by the strength of the Black Lives Matter movement, a call to unite and speak up about important issues that have long since shaped people’s lives in the UK and Europe. As a British-Malaysian herself, Jasmin wants to connect with the ESEA community and other ethnic minorities who share similar experiences of being ‘othered’.

 “I want to engage audiences who might challenge the idea that racism even exists, who do not consider the impact British history, both colonial and post-colonial, have had on people who rightly call the UK their home.” As the Covid-19 pandemic triggered more xenophobia which has been peddled by the governments and media for far too long, Jasmin hopes this Instagram opera can be a bridge which enables audiences on both sides of racial discrimination to have a frank and transparent conversation with each other.

Responding to Covid-19, Chinese Arts Now (CAN) offered six digital commissions to artists who identify as having Chinese cultural heritage or make work that incorporates contemporary Chinese perspectives. Nineteen ways of looking as one of the six commissions will go live to the public on 17 November and unfold via daily Instagram posts until 27 November.


To access the public view of nineteen ways of looking, please follow the account here: https://www.instagram.com/nineteenwaysoflooking/ 

For the other five CAN digital commissions, please go to the website: https://chineseartsnow.org.uk/whats-on/

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