The Many Sides of Soprano Neema Bickersteth

Asmaa Abdallah

Wearing multiple hats is a normal place for Neema Bickersteth. "It doesn't actually feel like I'm doing many jobs," she says, "rather that I am using all the different tools and abilities under the same hat to gather what we need to communicate."

In the interdisciplinary opera The Ritual of Breath Is the Rite to Resist, premiering September 16 & 17 at the Hop, Neema is singer, actor and mover, pairing her electrifying vocal range as soprano with her skills as a dancer and performing artist. Ritual is a response to the murder of Eric Garner, created by an interdisciplinary group of artist-activists, including composer and Stanford Professor Jonathan Berger, and interweaving music, text, visuals and movement.  

The opera opens with the young woman grieving privately and as she progresses through the various stages of her grief. Neema's rich, celestial voice reverberates through the hall as well as through the souls in presence. Her cry starts as a personal, painful one which transitions over the course of the opera's seven movements to become a call for justice, a public invitation for all to take part in a meditative ritual aimed to evoke empathy, understanding and healing. The role contains multitudes. At times Neema is herself, in the moment with others in the concert hall, grappling with loss and the healing process of breathing together. At others, she embodies Erica Garner, the daughter of Eric Garner, who lost his life to police violence.

While the trauma and tragedy of state-sanctioned violence against Black lives do not impact all of us equally, Neema believes that the invitation is not only for Black people, but for all who are on the same page as them. "I don't think that because you're not a Black person there isn't hurt from the structure/state of things," Neema says. "It's important for people of color to be with each other, to support and learn from each other, separately from others. And it's important for allies to also join the circle of healing. As long as there's curiosity, there's space for dialogue and healing. The goal is for the healing to spread through ever-growing circles."

Indeed the creative forces behind Ritual wanted to produce a work that would serve to help process the ongoing violence faced by marginalized communities. The journey to create Ritual has involved a wide range of artists and activists over many years, including Berger; Enrico Riley '95, painter and Dartmouth professor of Studio Arts; Vievee Francis, poet and member of the Dartmouth English department; theater artist Niegel Smith; dancer Trebian Pollard; and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, among others.

The Canadian award-winning soprano describes stepping into the role as "scary, shocking and uncomfortable." An introvert at heart who shies away from leadership positions (she was forced into being class president in high school), Neema embraces performing in front of an audience to represent a universally critical issue. "So even though I'm running away from it, it's also a part of me. [I'm] just negotiating the many sides to me."

And indeed to Neema there are many wondrous sides. Since coming onto the opera scene, she has earned rave reviews and accolades for performing operatic roles ranging from Mozart to Lehar in Canada and Europe, and more recently specializing in contemporary projects in opera, music theater and experimental theater. Named by NOW Magazine (Toronto) as one of the top ten theatre artists in the city, Neema is also the one-time winner and three-time nominee for Outstanding Performance at Toronto's Dora Mavor Moore awards.

Through Moveable Beast, the Toronto-based experimental collective of artists and musicians she co-founded, Neema examines culturally diverse and hybrid identities through art. In their interdisciplinary performance Century Song, Neema seamlessly melds song and movement to inhabit a century of women whose identities are contained within her own.

In Ritual, she remains true to this experimental style that defies classification, Neema does not revert to her classical training—she holds Bachelor and Master of Music degrees (Opera) from the University of British Columbia—which she finds can be "a restrictive box." Rather she digs into her personal voice and decides what feels right with the shape of the music and the message of the words.
And the words, powerful and moving as they are, have inspired Neema to include them in her own pre-performance meditative ritual. Her favorite lines at the moment are:

Lifting from the body,
the spirit that made you brave.
the spirit that makes us so much more than they could know.

"I often have a physical warmup that makes me feel connected and grounded, and breath. Always, breath."