Feature: A hive takes operatic flight in The Swarm

A new queen is born, a challenge issued, and the old queen must flee, taking half her court with her as the courtiers embark on a journey to find a new home.

When you explore the secret lives of bees in terms like this, perhaps the only surprise about composer Heloise Tunstall-Behrens’ new immersive opera and sound project, The Swarm, is that our honey-making friends haven’t featured more regularly as theatrical inspiration.

But then again, not many of us invest hours in recording the sounds of the hive, listening back to hours of footage, and slowly beginning to discern the subtleties in the sounds that reveal the drama and activity of the colony.

For composer Tunstall-Behrens, it began with the bees.

“Beekeeping has been in my blood on both sides of the family – although I didn’t know that much about it,” she explains.

“We moved into my grandfather’s house and there were all these weird hives in the back of the garden, I was really intrigued by them. My mum used them for compost, I remember exploring them – I was a bit fascinated.”

The interest developed after Tunstall-Behrens worked with a beekeeper in Italy, and when she returned to London, she set out to own her own hive.

A musician (the band Landscapes, formerly Lulu and the Lampshades, is one of her projects) , she was captivated by the sounds coming from the hive – and noticed that there were subtle changes that seemed to offer insights into the mood of the bees.

“Sometimes we’d go and check on them and they’d be quite high-pitched, and another time they’d be quite chilled out,” explains Tunstall-Behrens.

“I had an idea about putting a recording device into the hive, I borrowed some mics from a friend and put them in the hive for about two or three hours on different days; sunny days and stormy days, and I just listened and tried to note the differences in the mood of the hive.”

It was during these curious eavesdropping sessions that Tunstall-Behrens heard something that sparked a source of inspiration

“One recording kind of blew my mind,” she explains. “This really strange sound was coming from the hive, it was almost like a duck quacking. We realised it was the sound of a new queen being born, and it was a kind of war cry to the existing queen, something like ‘I’m here, and I’m going to be born, and you better get out of this hive, this is going to be my hive now.’”

When the new queens are born, the old one must leave and let them battle it out for the hive, while she, along with half the colony, seeks a new home. Tunstall-Behrens realised she had something to explore musically, and worked first to create an initial 10 minute opera called Be the Bee, before collaborating with musician and soundscape composer Auclair to create The Swarm.

“At the beginning I was listening to the recordings and trying to figure out if there was any kind of logic to them,” says Tunstall-Behrens, as she describes the creative process.

“I was kind of imitating them with my voice, almost getting into the psyche of the bees and translating it into a human sounds. We performed a 10 minutes opera called Be the Bee prior to The Swarm and that was very much taken from those noises from the hive. I wanted to develop it a bit further, and explore some of the mathematical patterns of the hive.

“I’d been listening a lot to this polyphonic singing from The Congo, groups that imitate the sounds of the forest and create these textural vocal pieces. I wanted to bring that into the context of a city.”

The result is The Swarm, sung by nine female voices, and performed by The Quorum at VAULT Festival, following its premiere last September.

The immersive opera and sound project follows the bees, from the moment of threat, through the disorientation of leaving the hive, on their journey to a new home.

“For each stage of the story I wanted to explore the bees in a different way,” says Tunstall-Behrens.

“When they’re first leaving the hive they’re really disorientated, and quite desperate, it’s only really when they find the queen, say, on a tree branch, that they all cluster in around her. It’s all very close and chaotic, and after that scouts go out to seek out a different possible site for the nest.”

“They come back and share what they’ve found with the rest of the hive, and compare these new sites through a dance, competing to determine which is the best site – in The Swarm that bit is kind of playful. It’s the most story-ful aspect.”

Audiences have embraced the piece, and Tunstall-Behrens admits she was surprised by the strength of feeling expressed in feedback.

“People were saying things like ‘utterly mesmerising’, ‘hypnotic’, ‘immersive’, lots of people said they were almost in a trance – someone said they cried. I think people really felt the connection between the singers and the tenderness.”

Why does an immersive opera about bees strike such a chord? Is it because bees represent one of the few species that, like humans, live as tight communities in close proximity to each other?

“It’s about collaboration and community – and it’s almost a story of identity,” says Tunstall-Behrens.

“The singers go through this process of a journey, and having to work out a new identity, but by the end they’re all singing the same words together, and I think audiences really felt like there was a real connection between them, which is quite magical.”

The Swarm is at VAULT Festival from February 8-12.

Leave a Reply