When the British vocalist Elaine Mitchener performs Peter Maxwell Davies’ “Eight Songs for a Mad King” at Wigmore Hall in London on Friday, a lot will be on her mind: the complex psychology of the work’s central character, the piece’s rich performing history and its sensitive perspective on mental health. That’s before she even gets to the notes.
“It’s an exhausting piece emotionally,” Mitchener said in a recent interview. “You have to have a very still inner core in order to perform it. Otherwise, you just will not be able to get to the end.”
“Eight Songs for a Mad King” is a 30-minute music-theater monodrama, written by Davies in 1969 in collaboration with the actor Roy Hart. It is based on the life of King George III, who reigned in Britain in late 18th and early 19th centuries and who had an unknown mental illness. Onstage, a highly distressed King George battles with, and eventually succumbs to, the sounds in his head. It’s a challenging work for any singer, requiring a five-octave vocal range, a variety of speech-singing techniques, plus multiphonics — singing two or more notes at the same time.
Mitchener has honed these capabilities over nearly 15 years as an experimental vocal performer, but she is also and composer and movement artist. Her practice incorporates improvisation, choreography and research.
Although Friday’s performance, in which she will sing with the contemporary music ensemble Apartment House, was programmed long before the coronation of King Charles III was announced, Mitchener said that watching the May 6 ceremony had fed into her preparation. It had helped her imagine the psychological extremes that George III must have experienced, she said: “from being crowned, to being completely mad,” and ending up “beaten, whipped, mocked, jeered.”
“The more I’ve understood the context of George III’s illness, and reading behind the scenes of what Davies was trying to do with this work — which was to destigmatize mental illness — I have a much more sympathetic approach to the character,” Mitchener said. “We as a society are becoming more understanding about these issues that could happen to any of us,” she added.
Her research had also led her to believe that Hart’s contribution should be better recognized, she said. Hart developed the hyper-expressive vocal technique that the piece requires at the Alfred Wolfsohn Voice Research Center, a Berlin- and London-based institute that explored sounds beyond speech or song, informed by the screams that its founder heard in the trenches of World War I.
Hart’s involvement in “Eight Songs” informed not only the piece’s many vocal requirements, but also its emphasis on drama, said Kelvin Thomas, a baritone who has performed “Eight Songs for a Mad King” over 100 times. “It’s the drama that drives the music and the technique,” he said. “It’s not just that you’re technically screaming,” Thomas added, “there’s a reason why you’re screaming.”
“Eight Songs for a Mad King” is toward the older end of the repertoire that Mitchener usually tackles. This past Sunday, she performed in London alongside the American poet Moor Mother in a series of improvised duets. In March, Mitchener performed a program of works by Jason Yarde, Matana Roberts, Tansy Davies and others, all written in the last three years, at the MaerzMusik contemporary music festival in Berlin.
“I consider myself a performer who composes — in that order, really,” she said. “But to me,” she added, “the responsibility of any performer is to really liberate the score from what you see.”
Michener was born in 1970, in London, to Jamaican parents. Early exposure at home to ska, dub, gospel and Rastafarian music was later nurtured at a local Adventist church. “If you go to particularly Black churches, and people discover that you have a talent for music, or delivering text, that’s really encouraged from a young age,” Mitchener said.
Her path to contemporary music was complicated. As a student at Trinity College of Music in London, she encountered some modern works — including “Eight Songs for a Mad King” — although most of her studies involved classical singing. In her final year there, her singing teacher died, and a new tutor recategorized her voice from a low contralto to high mezzo-soprano. “I had to start again,” Mitchener said.
After graduating, Mitchener took an eight-year hiatus from performing but continued taking vocal lessons while she worked jobs in theater advertising and music publishing. In 2008, she found a teacher who was “unfazed by contemporary music,” she said: the opera singer Jacqueline Straubinger-Bremar, whom she has continued lessons with for the past 15 years. “Some people never find the right teacher for their voice, for where they are musically, or where they are in their lives,” Mitchener said. “I was lucky to find her.”
Alongside interpreting others’ works, Mitchener has conceived performance projects herself, including “Industrializing Intimacy,” a work about togetherness and separation that uses improvised vocals, choreographed movement and computer-generated sound, and “SWEET TOOTH,” a music theater piece that examines the history of the British sugar trade and the brutalities of slavery.
She said that foregrounding the historical contributions of Black performers and composers was particularly important to her, and noted that two of the best exponents of “Eight Songs for a Mad King” — Julius Eastman, the American composer and performance artist; and William Pearson, the baritone — were Black.
“Me being onstage as a Black experimental contemporary music vocalist,” Mitchener said, “is in itself a political act.” She will be aware of this, as well as the lessons of her research, onstage on Friday. “When I do this piece, I’m thinking about all of these things,” she said. “How it comes out, I’m not sure I can say. But it all feeds in.”
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