OSMAN AND HIS SNAILS – a lockdown opera

I was asked by Nigel Osborne, composer and aid worker, and Tina Ellen Lee, Artistic Director of Opera Circus to join them in making a film of a locked-down opera with 5 singers on different continents thousands of miles apart. Nigel told me the moving story of Osman Kavala, a Turkish human rights worker, imprisoned in Istanbul with ridiculous charges made against him. 

Recently a story appeared about Osman and his pet snails.


A work of (unpaid) true collaboration began when numbers of the team helped to write the libretto; with Nigel composing the music across two days and nights; Anthony Ingle transcribing the music to piano and providing the 10 minute track for the rest of us to be guided by; followed by Tina asking the five wonderful singers, with whom she has worked for many years, if they would give their time; and a young Danish musician, Mikael Hegelund Martin of Beats across Borders, offering to clean up and balance the sound recorded on mobile phones; and Andy Morton, a singer and director in Australia, helping his fellow singers into their roles. 

I worked via Skype across the globe under our lock-down, coaching the singers to remember to frame themselves against a solid colour, central to the horizontally propped-up mobile phone; and as if in some comedy skit, asking them to bring the one or two movable lamps in their own locked-down flats around to the front so the light was on their faces, to hang grease proof paper or a thin white linen shirt or skirt in front of the lamp to soften the highlights, to tape a newspaper page onto a broom handle, with it in turn tapped to an chair’s upright so that light could reflect back into the darker side of their faces. I asked them to remember, while singing, where their eyelines should be in particular shots, and so on. They were very patient. 

Everyone worked as volunteers with the sole purpose to help Osman, a man most of us had never met. When I had conversations with the singers before they recorded in their darkened rooms on their own, listening to the piano track in one ear and concentrating as best they could on their roles with neither a camera operator, sound tech nor a director to help them, one of the singers told me she found a picture of Osman and put it next to her phone, to sing to him. 

I believe we were all conscious that perhaps the fate of a good man was to some degree in our hands and that every delay perhaps meant Osman would be held another day or month or year away from his books and loved ones. 

The opera will be shared and distributed through Amnesty International, PEN, Open Democracy and by everyone who loves and believes in justice and freedom. Music and song have a powerful part to play at the heart of our humanity and care and respect for each other.

The film goes live on 22 June 2020. I will post whatever call to action may develop. Please pass this to your friends.

The film can be seen here in English, and here in Turkish.