How Yorkshire’s Boxing Day floods have inspired a new opera

Calderland rehearsals in Hebden Bridge. Picture by Sarah Mason.

The 2015 floods left much of Yorkshire underwater, but now Sarah Freeman discovers how the disaster has inspired a new folk opera they are calling Calderland.

The scars left on Calderdale by the Boxing Day floods of 2015 are no longer so very visible. There is the odd empty property, once home to a business which never returned, and on the side of some buildings you can just about see the watermarks left by deluge.

However, for those who lived through the disaster, the memories of the Boxing Day floods run much deeper. Like many in the area, Kerry McQuade is used to floods. She moved from London to Hebden Bridge 32 years ago, but having watched the waters rise from afar two years ago she now admits to feeling nervous whenever the heavens open.

“I was visiting relations,” says Kerry, who for the last eight years has worked at the town’s Valley Organics store. “I was horrified when I saw a picture of the shop which was under four feet of water. It was open again early in the New Year following an extraordinary effort by so many people. It was a devastating, but amazing to live through. Seeing everyone pull together was just lovely, but it doesn’t stop you feeling anxious whenever it rains now.”

Those images of the waters rising and entire streets being overtaken by the floods are hard to shake. However, in an attempt to celebrate the community spirit which rose from the disaster and to show the wider world that the area is very much back open for business tomorrow will see the culmination of the Landmarks and Waterlines project.

Launched in April, those affected by the floods have been encouraged to tell their own personal stories which have helped formed the basis of a new community folk opera entitled Calderland, six new commissions by local artists and a People’s Fair, all taking place over the course of three days at Halifax’s recently reopened Piece Hall.

Steve Duncan, chief executive of the Community Foundation for Calderdale, said: “For millennia water has played a pivotal role in the shaping of this area. The flood of 2015 were devastating for many, but the communities have responded with typical, creativity and resilience.

“We want to send a clear message across our region and beyond that our towns are open for business and to visitors and these cultural events, which have run throughout Calderdale, are about celebrating the strength of our communities.”

Calderland, performed by a community choir and a band of musicians, has been written by the award-winning playwright Mike Kenny with a score from composer Richard Taylor.

The hour-long piece will take the audience on a musical journey which traces the history of the valley from the Industrial Revolution to the events of two years ago and features nods to the writer Daniel Defoe, the poet Ted Hughes and Happy Valley screenwriter Sally Wainwright.

Alan Dix, who heads up the opera’s creative team, says: “Calderland is more than opera, it is a poetic and emotional exploration of what makes the Calder Valley so very special. The making of this production - a people’s opera - has shown how extraordinary the valley is and, despite the Boxing Day floods, how much it is loved. Calderland is a homage to a very special place and the amazing people who live there.”

Kerry is one of the 150 singers who have been recruited over the last few months and she admits the process has been emotional.

“I’ve cried a lot – I had to actually ask Em [Em Whitfield Brookes, choir director] for help on how to get through the lines,” she says. I feel very protective over the area and our community and feel proud to be involved in Calderland. It’s amazing when someone writes about your own life history – it’s a gift really.”

For the full Landlines and Watermarks programme visit landlinesandwatermarks.org

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