Photo credit: Brian Morton
To write is to pour your ideas and opinions onto paper. To shout and to perform aloud or in silence is to protest. This is what Elaine Mitchener does
British of Jamaican parentage, Elaine Mitchener, is a classically trained vocalist and experimental artist, who studied at Trinity College of Music and continues to study with opera singing teacher Jacqueline Bremar. Mitchener is also a movement artist and composer, whose work encompasses improvisation, jazz, contemporary music theatre and performance art.
In “As you like it,” Shakespeare’s play, I witnessed Mitchener, at the National Theatre in London in 2015, imitating birds’ movements and mimicking their songs with 11 other vocalists —an apparent statement on the stage and addressing the audience. She certainly doesn’t stop with the birds but flies everywhere. From London, to Venice, to Berlin to Holland —on stage and online. Her latest activities with her ensamble was for the Danube Music Festival 2000 in Germany: Radio SWR2
“These Walls Bear Witness/Les Murs Sont Témoins” July-November 2019, created by Elaine Mitchener and commissioned by Warwick University with support from English Heritage, was part of British history in which Mitchener was telling the stories of French African-Caribbean prisoners of war using their names held in an inventory at the castle, plus historic texts to vividly bring the past to life at Porchester Castle in Hampshire. The castle was served as a prison during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1793–1815.
In this short but intensive meeting via video chat, I asked Elaine about her latest work, she generously shared “the then + the now = now time” with us:
May: Fascinating! In your own words, please, tells us how do you do this vocal-movement combination?
EM: I combine vocal work with movement and texts by mainly African-diaspora writers and try to push both my voice and body as far as I can in terms of exploring their expressive possibilities, as well as testing out the physical limits of my own abilities. With every performance I’m searching for a totality of expression, to fully unify and amplify the musical, physical, emotional, and political aspects of each work.
May: how do you train your voice to do different rhythms from shouting (as with the prisoners) to opera and bird vocalise?
EM: I am interested in deconstructing the voice using text, and the rhythms of text /sentences – to express ideas or themes with a work. These references aren’t necessarily obvious as quite often I don’t use actual words, but phonetics as they are not easily discernible; e.g. it would be the energy/emotional sound(s) of dissent which I would explore and not the words themselves.
May: How much do you use your natural voice and how much your trained one(s).
EM: My trained and natural voices are always supported by my singing technique: completely mixed
May: Do you train daily?
EM: Absolutely! Or as much as I can.
May: Now, talking about voice only, I remember Pavarotti, the great tenor of his time and all times, once said that the human being’s voice is flexible in a sense that the degree of the voice could be pushed from a bird to a donkey. I wonder, if so would you mimic other peoples’ voices at all?
EM: No! It’s a talent I sadly do not possess
May: That’s a relief, luckily you wouldn’t imitate me then!
Many thanks, Elaine Mitchener, for your valuable time. On behalf of Whispering Dialogue team, I wish you all the very best in your future projects and stay safe.