The music for “Down the Rabbit Hole” was written by ZOLLINO, a British composer and producer also known as Nino Russell. I have loved singing his music in primary schools across Winsford and can’t wait to perform the storybook opera in London and Surbiton next week. In the blog post today, I thought I would share with you our working process and how the score was brought to life.
I first met Nino in 2016 when we both attended the Royal College of Music in London. We would meet to rehearse musical ideas and concepts and eventually develop the pieces ready for performance and recording. He has a wicked sense of humour and is very pragmatic with both organisation skills and writing for the voice.
After completing the Research & Development for “Down the Rabbit Hole” in February 2022, I knew that I wanted to commission a new score which could showcase the creative abilities of British Sign Language (BSL) and allow me to adapt the narrative of the classic tale of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”. I was thrilled when Nino agreed to join the team and write the music.
At first, we met to discuss the storyboard and the brief for the opera. In this general discussion, I highlighted which scenes I wanted to cover, and together we discussed the tone of the piece and basic musical ideas. We were also lucky to collaborate with flautist and artistic director of Audiovisability, Ruth Montgomery, who worked on the project as a Music Consultant, providing insight into how to make music accessible to the deaf community. I knew that I wanted to engage the children in a performative activity during the opera so that they could be creative and perform as part of the storytelling. I imagined them performing a Sign-Song during the opera inspired by the text from the “Queen of Hearts who baked some tarts” nursery rhyme with a couple of word changes as we went along to fit the BSL poetry, so The Knave of Hearts, He saw those tarts, And took them clean away. The King of Hearts, Called for the Tarts, And Was Upset At What He Saw. (There were three layers of upset with steam coming from his nose, ears and finally his head explodes in anger).
We decided to begin the composition process with this piece as we wanted to create learning videos and distribute them to the schools in January 2023 before the performances in March 2023, to give the students time to prepare and learn the BSL poem.
Nino, George and I met with actress Zoë McWhinney in October 2022 to discuss this activity. Zoë created a BSL poetic translation, which we then connected with a musical pulse (a steady and continuous beat). Connecting the BSL poem with a pulse enabled Nino to write music that could accompany the poem. Then in November, we met up to record the demonstration video and the audio tracks. I was thrilled with the composition as the melody reminded me of romantic ballet suites, and the virtuosic piano part excites the ear with cascading triplets which run the full length of the piano range, showcasing the magic of classical music.
In December 2022, I shared the final draft of the complete Libretto with Nino, and I loved that he involved George and me in the compositional process, as we would receive drafts of the musical scenes, which we would sight-read and send back recordings. It was like receiving pieces of an enchanted jigsaw that would be connected over several weeks to complete the final version.
I asked Nino if he could share his personal thoughts on this experience.
“Charlotte captured Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland in the playful libretto adapted from the novel, which inspired me to approach the music with the same surrealist enthusiasm! I tried to use as many colourful melodies and textures as possible within the opera to portray this fantastical world.”
I wanted to strike a balance between not overloading the children with music that was too complex and yet showcasing opera as a powerful story-telling form that is accessible to everyone.
It was particularly fascinating for me to consult with Zoë McWhinney, Ruth Montgomery and Naomi Gray about integrating sign language within the opera, which presented its own challenges — for instance, to consider the use of meter and define a clear pulse in certain scenes where synchronicity between the signs and singing is paramount.
I usually tend to write darker music that is focused on more sinister plots, so the opportunity to collaborate with Charlotte and George (on anything!) again on something so joyful has been an absolute privilege. We had a lot of fun making this, and I think you can really sense that watching the opera!”
I can’t thank Nino enough for the phantasmagorical score he has created. We plan to make an audio recording of the music to share some of the Wonderland with you. We also hope that this tour will not be the end of “Down of Rabbit Hole” but only the beginning of a larger journey. If you would like to host a “Down the Rabbit Hole” performance or support the project in future iterations, please get in touch.