Performing Millions of Years

Streetwise performer Julie Lung describes her experiences starring in Millions of Years, English National Opera's site-specific community performance inspired by the opera Akhnaten:

We first got to hear about this exciting AkhnatenMillions of Years project back in November 2015, when Sophie Motley (Director) came to talk to Streetwise about it and said it would be set in ancient Egypt. The project would culminate in a performance at British Museum in London.

It certainly aroused my curiosity, so I went along to taster sessions in December to find out more. The creative team - Sophie, Caroline Williams as Associate Director, Lee Reynolds as Music Director and Jose Triguero as Movement and Juggling Director - were introduced to the group (Streetwise, ENO Community Chorus and other participants). The first session was fun with warm-up group exercises and movement, learning some juggling with soft balls in pairs, then learning a hymn in Hebrew called 'Marrabu'. Another session involved songwriting with composer John Barber.

I decided to take part in the project, as I was interested to learn about the pharoah Akhnaten (Tutankhamun's father) and the music of Philip Glass, and to take on something outside of my comfort zone. The rehearsal process started at the end of January 2016, comprising of weekly rehearsals on a Sunday for the next six weeks, and leading to a full weekend in the final week. It looked daunting, but each week that went by, we would learn something new and work with different people.

The workshops were focused and challenging, with people being supportive of each other. The morning would start with movement and working in groups (playing the roles of Egyptian citizens at the funeral of Amenhotep III) and learning the choreography using large wooden sticks, with a piano playing Glass's music (arranged by Lee) to get used to moving in strict time. Glass's music is repetitive, so there would always be Jose, Sophie or another ENO staff member leading at the front. In the afternoon, we would do some singing either in Akkadian (ancient Egyptian), Hebrew or English. Other things we learnt were hand gestures and how to use our postures to radiate like the sun, and being still for long periods of time. The group became larger in the later rehearsals with other performers including Brixton Youth Theatre, Gandini jugglers, percussion players and the countertenor singer Anthony Roth Constanzo who played Aknaten.

As time went on, the challenges for me were memorising quite a big vocal score and coming down with a winter cold and cough. However, Streetwise workshop leaders Rob and Sharon were on hand to provide extra music support and guidance, and ENO and Streetwise staff supported the group too. What was helpful to Streetwise performers was the option of attending Streetwise's weekly Wednesday Explore Group workshops to go over song material or movement, and we were also encouraged to listen to Glass's music on YouTube. Oother teaching resources included a CD for the various voice parts of the songs to rehearse at home, and a video was made by ENO showing the choreography of the wooden sticks.

We found out about new aspects of the opera when ENO arranged a talk given by Karen Kamensek (the Akhnaten conductor), the ENO Head of Music, and Alice from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. The speakers gave an insight into how ENO performers and musicians underwent learning the opera, and the Akhnaten exhibition at the Petrie Museum. Performers were also encouraged to visit the British Museum, which I did in the third week, to get familiar with the performance space. It was a massive space in the Great Court and I could imagine the wonderful voices filling the venue.

The day of the performance finally arrived on Sunday 6 March, but I wasn't well enough to perform fully, so Fiona, a Streetwise volunteer ably covered my role. I came to watch and offer moral support, and Sophie suggested I join in with the singing if I could. Anyway, I cheered the performers on as they came onto the performance área, where they filled the staircases on the right and left sides, with the jugglers appearing on the raised stage. To me, they were like golden athletes, as they had performed twice already in a technical run and dress rehearsal.

The atmosphere and music was electric with five scenes and an epilogue being performed. It took the audience on a journey from the ancient past to the present and to the future, in a response to Glass's Aknaten opera. I was so happy when my singing voice could open up to join in with my fellow performers for scene four, 'In this infinite temple the sun never sets..."  which had a spiritual feel, and 'The plastic age' (the song that participants and composer John Barber had written), and finally the epilogue, 'Millions of years'. There was such a profound joy in the raising of voices together of mixed ages, and being part of a large collaborative theatrical piece with 120 performers. We were told that this performance was going to be bigger than what we could have imagined, and that certainly rang true.

Post-project, for my personal interest, I attended a talk given by co-librettist Shalom Goldman at the Petrie Museum. He had attended the Sunday performance, and paid a great compliment saying it was "beautiful art"

The journey of Aknaten still continues, but that's another story.

Click here to watch a behind-the-scenes video about the Millions of Years project.