An opera performer in origin, Jessica Walker’s career has deviated into exploring as many fields as her passion for artistic truth and storytelling has taken her. Guillermo Názara conversates with the vocalist about this latest project, made in tandem with pianist Joseph Atkins, director David Lefeber and illustrator Tom Hicks (whose previously worked with Paul McCartney, Skunk Anansie, Newton Faulkner and Gravenhurst) to dig deeper into the insides of a piece literally featuring her very heart and soul.
How did the idea for Scene Unseen come to you?
We wanted to explore our own identities, both musical and personal, through our music and words.
Why do it as recorded performance?
We wrote Scene Unseen during lockdown, so it felt like the best (and only) way to realise the piece.
Instinctively one would think that opera and cabaret simply don’t go together, but you’ve managed to make it work. What’s the secret for that, performing-wise?
We are both artists who have creatively crossed genres in our work, and it’s what interests us. Cabaret represents an opportunity to bring multiple musical strands together – it isn’t just one thing. Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler are both examples of composers who worked across operatic and cabaret forms, and Weill, in particular, liked writing for trained voices. We’re following in that tradition to a degree, while also creating our own style.
The show is more than a mere recital of songs, as it’s all glued together by the telling of a very intimate narrative. How much of you has been put into it and how much has been fictionalised?
The essence of it is my story – it has a theatrical truth, but it is embellished, and some of it blurs fact with fiction. In a way, any theatre or musical piece is a version of a narrative, and can’t be absolutely truthful. I’m looking to express something essential, that I hope finds a connection with the audience it reaches.
Many of those excerpts recall very tough memories. Is it any healing retelling them through music?
It has been very healing. Joe creating the means through which I can express them has been an amazing experience, and has gone a long way to resolving some big issues from my past. It’s also quite fun singing some of the memories, even if they are dark, because the music is so playful. It brings another angle and dimension to real events, and lifts them out of being depressing!
As an opera performer, this show differs considerably from what you may have previously done as it includes more spoken, blunt acting. Has this been a challenge while preparing it?
We wrote what we felt we had the ability to perform. It pushed me emotionally, but not in terms of form. I’ve done a lot of work with spoken text (musicals, cabaret) and am very happy talking on stage. I rejected traditional opera some years ago, because I didn’t feel I could communicate as directly as I can with this hybrid style.
Has this media given you the opportunity to explore in some way that a live concert would not allow you to?
It gave James Dacre, the director, an opportunity to work in a different way, because he composed the visual language. Having the illustration by Tom Hicks also enhanced the narrative in a different way than in a live show. For us as performers, although we filmed a couple of songs more than once, we didn’t have much time, so it’s pretty much a live performance.
Would you consider turning this show into a live stage concert at some point?
Yes! We are planning live performances in 2023. Perhaps you can suggest a suitable venue. We aren’t sure whether to go for a concert space or a theatre space.
What makes Scene Unseen stand out from the rest?
We think it’s pretty unique, because it doesn’t fit neatly into any one genre. It’s almost a song cycle, but one which expresses very personal events, and which has strong theatrical elements, too. Musically, it tips its hat to numerous cabaret traditions of the last hundred years, but it also sounds like something new.
Get to see Unseen Scene online on English Touring Opera’s video platform, ETO at Home until December for £5 the following link.