Composer Errollyn Wallen was initially reluctant to make a modern opera out of an 18th century novel.
When asked to take on the project, she didn’t think it held any relevance for the world we live in in 2014.
And she hated the way the book was about a girl who wasn’t even allowed to speak.
But, after meeting with Birmingham teenagers and sex workers, she realised how the themes are still shockingly pertinent today.
The result is Anon, a new work inspired by a 1731 book by Abbe Prevost which was turned into the Puccini opera Manon Lescaut.
Unlike the original, it gives a voice to women with tragic stories to tell of being lured into prostitution, drug addiction and the “shame” of falling for the wrong man.
It is part of Welsh National Opera’s seasonal theme of fallen women. It has already staged a new production of Manon Lescaut at Birmingham Hippodrome as well as La traviata, the literal translation of which is “she who has strayed from the path”.
The company also wanted to produce a more contemporary, accessible production about the exploitation of women today.
So Anon is to be staged at Birmingham’s mac and Newhampton Arts Centre in Wolverhampton.
It uses the words of three Birmingham sex workers who Errollyn spoke to, as well as groups of girls from Newman University and Tipton Academy.
Errollyn, who received an MBE for services to music and last year picked up the Ivor Novello Award for classical music, was deeply moved by her encounters with the prostitutes, who she met through the Safe Project charity.
“They were anonymous but happy for their voices to be heard,” says Belize-born Errollyn, aged 55, who was the first black woman to have a work performed at the Proms.
“I had written a line about one of the characters being led into prostitution because she was a drug addict, and I asked if that was common, and it was indeed the case with all three women.
“They had all been on crack and had become prostitutes in their desperate search for money to feed their habit.
“And they had all been led into that life by an older man.
“They were all in a cycle of neglect and abuse. They hadn’t been taken care of as children and were encouraged to live a life that was highly unsafe, because their parents didn’t know any better.
“I was struck by the idea that sometimes when you are in trouble, you may need to get away from the people around you. They may seem like friends but they are interested in keeping you dependent on them and drugs.
“One woman was in rehab and kept being called by this man who wanted her to leave, as he didn’t want her to get clean.
“They all wished they had stayed on at school longer and not been in such a hurry to grow up.
“The thing that haunts me still is that every woman had had their children taken away from them. That’s tragic.
“They’d seen murders and overdoses and lived hard lives. One was clean and the other two were trying to get clean. They were all looking for a better life.
“I left the interviews thinking how we all live in our own bubbles but how that could have been me, who knows? It made me feel lucky. It was moving, sad and depressing but illuminating.
“I had initially thought this story was so dated and had no connection with me, but some things have absolutely not changed.
“When I was first approached about adapting Manon Lescaut I was reluctant, as the novel seemed so much from a different time. The way Manon was objectified and didn’t even speak, it was hard for me to find a way in and make it contemporary and relevant.
“But then we had the workshops with Midland girls, and I changed my mind completely.”
WNO Youth and Community director Rhian Hutchings explains how Manon evolved into Anon: “We took the subject matter from the original opera. Then, together with Errollyn, we pulled that story apart and looked at how we could explore its subject matter today.
“It is the story of a woman who makes a decision, in this case to go off with a man, and the huge consequences it has for her life – and her death.”
Errollyn and Rhian turned to Birmingham for their research as the WNO has strong links with the city – its second home is Birmingham Hippodrome.
And because Anon is a co-production with Birmingham-based South Asian arts organisation Sampad, which saw its relevance to contemporary Indian stories.
They helped organise workshops with groups of girls from Newman University and Tipton Academy.
“I asked them about the themes of young love and running away with someone from another culture or religion, what they would do in those situations and what the consequences might be,” says Errollyn.
“I was inspired by what they said, it was a fascinating insight into the lives of young women. They were so enthusiastic and articulate.
“There was a group of about 15 students and about three quarters of them had had really close escapes with a stranger, like being stopped by men who dragged to drag them into cars.
“That was shocking.
“They were so vocal about the complexities of being a young woman today. They were
not condemning their families but they thought some things weren’t right. They were trying to juggle the different demands on them.
“One woman told me a young girl relative had run away with someone else, and the shame was considered so great that the whole family had to leave the country.
“Another girl had been banished from her own family for bringing shame on it because of her romantic choice.
“Anon is literally giving women a voice, as some of the lines in the opera are direct quotes from the women I met.
“I put in little things that I wouldn’t have thought of – one group said their neighbours would definitely have something to say about the scandal, so I put that in.”
Rhian adds: “What Errollyn has done is to bring these women’s stories together into one very powerful story.
“I’m really interested to see how audiences will react to it, as we haven’t shied away from it.
“What we want to have is engagement and discussion with a lot of young adults about a very contemporary issue. Opera is able to approach these subjects with a kind of poetry, but it makes it no less hard-hitting.”
The all-female cast of Anon consists of two actresses, Shin-Fei Chen and Ronke Adekoluejo, and three sopranos, Sara Lian Owen, Claire Wild and Joanna Foote.
As the opera has also been put together by director Wils Wilson, designer Amanda Stoodley, WNO’s Rhian Hutchings and Piali Ray, director of Sampad, it’s been an almost all-female production.
“That’s unusual and fantastic,” beams Errollyn.
“And we have a multi-racial cast, which I like to see on stage in operas.
“I think the story goes across all cultures. I have loved working on this opera and I can’t wait to see it.
“The opera is about terrible things but the music is very passionate and I don’t think of it as a sad work.
“And talking about things helps – our aim is to hold question-and-answer sessions at the end of each performance to look at some of the issues that have been raised.
“My sister, who works with young offenders, is very excited about the project and she’s not interested in classical music!
“The tickets only cost £5 and it’s not too long at only 40 minutes, so I hope many of the people who see Anon will be going to an opera for the first time.
“I hope they will realise it can be a story about them, not this remote 18th century world.”