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Music and Childbirth: Emily Hall and Toby Litt’s Lifecycle at Opera North

I recently went to see Lifecycle at Opera North’s Howard Assembly Room, Leeds. Lifecycle is a song cycle about pregnancy, childbirth, and the first few months that follow. It was an interesting experience on a number of different levels. From a musical perspective, the song cycle was by no means traditional, but neither was it fiercely modern (in the classical sense). It was homely; musically comfortable and warm. The work was scored for piano, cello, and female voice and had a tone that I might describe as “crossover”; but not crossover in the sense of classical music trying to appeal to a more popularist audience, but as in pop music infused with classical elements.

Mara Carlyle who sang from the perspective of mother opted for a more jazz-influenced vocal. Rather than employ a vibrato-heavy classical style, a style often associated with song cycles, Carlyle’s vocal gave the work a soft, human tone that created a close and intimate musical atmosphere. In a way, it was if she were singing to herself, unaware of the audience. It was as if we had been allowed to sit in on a mother confiding her deepest feelings to one of her closest friend. The intimate nature of the cycle – both musically and poetically – was what gave the song cycle its power and its rich emotional depth.

The cycle’s inclusion of songs that not only dealt with the joy of childbirth, but also some of the anxieties that come with having children was particularly poignant as this is a topic that is not often addressed and that is rarely talked about. Songs such as More than Milk (There used to be a woman in this body not just milk./ There used to be a substance to her living, not just milk and carrying) provided the cycle with a very real, and very human, heartfelt view of childbirth; any rose-tinted spectacles are to be left at the door.

At the performance on Friday, following the performance we were treated to a talk by the writer of poems after the cycle. Toby Litt’s talk focused on how he as a man came to write these poems that speak very much from the perspective of a mother. I couldn’t help, though, but think that his view of his own poems was almost too prescriptive. In explaining (justifying?) why he decided to write from a female perspective, I think he failed to see that his words also have the potential to carry a much wider narrative significance, his poems exploring not just the relationship between mother and child, but the tension and joys of the responsibilities of family ties in general.

For me in particular, his words also had another narrative layer – and no doubt one not intended by the author, but an important layer all the same. As a gay man, the cycle for me was tinged with a sense of melancholy (perhaps even loss), as it provided me with an insight into the varied emotional experience of having a child – something that I will never experience directly, at least not in the sense communicated in the cycle. The range of emotions explored in the cycle was something that certainly sat with me and I think the way in which the music aligned itself with the poems by creating a very personal and intimate atmosphere made the experience quite powerful. If you get chance to see it do, as it certainly is interesting emotional experience whether woman or man, parent or child.

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