In Haunt

Minutes To Midnight is a new musical piece with a disarmament theme by composer John Sturt and librettist Sophia Chapadjiev, exploring the timely issue of America’s nuclear power through an innovative form… opera! It is part of Tête à Tête: The Opera Festival.

Minutes To Midnight

Whilst the show is having a physical launch at the Cockpit Theatre on 16th September, audiences from across the world will be able to tune into a broadcast version from the 18th September, the same day a panellist discussion will take place, exploring the themes raised. The panellists include CND General Secretary Kate Hudson, and CND Peace Patron and Manchester Metropolitan University academic Dr Becky Alexis-Martin, whose book ‘Disarming Doomsday’ previously featured on Haunt here.

So what does a Nuclear Opera involve? Set on November 8, 2016, (Election Day in the US) Minutes to Midnight holds this premise: two low-level lieutenants tasked with manning missiles from an underground bunker in freezing North Dakota must decide - how do you ‘follow orders’ when you are fuelled by doubt? With a backdrop of American politics, various hijinks, and rousing rounds of ‘Go Fish’, this operatic tale asks audiences ‘can you follow your conscience while following orders?’

2020 marks 75 years since the nuclear bombing of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and thus a performance like Minutes To Midnight offers many fascinating and crucial points for thought. This may be of additional interest to Manchester audiences too, given that Manchester is a Nuclear Free Zone – becoming so in 1980, and the first city in the world to hold this status at the time. 

I am Emily Rae Hubball, Dr Becky Alexis-Martin’s research assistant - and I set out to interview Sophia Chapadjiev to discover more about this new composition…

Hello Sophia. What inspired you to come up with your storyline and nuclear theme?

“In 2018, Bill Bankes-Jones, the Artistic Director of the Tête à Tête Festival, introduced me to the composer, John Stuart, who was interested in writing a piece about American 'missileers' – the officers tasked with manning missiles from underground bunkers. I’d written a couple libretti set in confined spaces (an airplane, a crypt) and relish exploring highly charged situations, so this very much coincided with my interests.  John had brought the Who and Where of the piece, I then needed to figure out the When, What and Why.”  

Why was the story based in November 2016?

“Deciding when to set the piece was a challenge – although now in retrospect, seems obvious.  There were a few nuclear mishaps in the late 20th century which I considered writing about and then around 2013 a huge missile cheating scandal broke and for a while I toyed with that idea.  But one day, I came across a letter spearheaded by Dr Bruce Blair, co-Founder of Global Zero and an ex-missileer, and signed by nine other former launch officers, which basically addressed why they felt one particular 2016 candidate should not have access to the launch codes.  The letter did little to dissuade the public as, in the end, that candidate won.  Though not by the popular vote I’d like to add.”

Minutes To Midnight

What are you trying to portray by the use of the two young 'missileers'?

“Firstly, and tangentially, it is unbelievable to me that such an all-important job can be given to relatively young recruits.  Most people join the Air Force with hopes of flying and actively defending their country, so to get stuck in an underground bunker watching a computer has to be a bit of a let-down.  I did a great amount of research on 'missileer' culture and one of the things that I took away from it, was how utterly boring most of what they did seemed.  Their routine is endlessly repetitive, decision-making is out of their control and above their paygrade, and when it boils down to it, their sole purpose is to wait – and be ready – for a call to initiate a nuclear launch.  A call that in fifty years has never come.  Now the concept of ‘waiting’, in itself, isn’t theatrically exciting (unless it’s Godot you are waiting for); but the tension of what if – especially if it is in the right moment – can be dramatic to an operatic scale.  So what I needed was to find that right moment to disrupt things.  Hence the 2016 presidential election.  What if one of the missileers began to question the system?  What if doubt and fear started creeping in?  What if what is happening above ground starts affecting what is below ground?”

What message would you like people to take from your opera?

“Our hope is to draw people’s attention to the increasing dangers of giving vast power to the powerful few.  I think of Stan Lee’s quote: 'with great power comes great responsibility' and as of now, in America, the nuclear responsibility is too great for the person in power.  Honestly, that responsibility is too great for any single person, and the only real protection against nuclear catastrophe would be the total elimination of nuclear weapons.  So if the audience feels similarly, I’d implore them to take action.”

The live performance of Minutes To Midnight: A Nuclear Opera takes place at 19:00-19:40 on Wednesday 16th September 2020 at The Cockpit Theatre in London. There will also be an interactive broadcast of this show at 18:00-19:00, Friday 18th September 2020 and more information about the online screening of the event is available via the website: 

https://www.tete-a-tete.org.uk/event/minutes-to-midnight-a-nuclear-opera-interactive-broadcast/

By Emily Rae Hubball

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