Actual opera buzz: The Swarm, in review Image courtesy of The Quorum.

Actual opera buzz: The Swarm, in review

Jenna Simeonov

Playing this week at London’s Brunel Tunnel is The Swarm, the second collaboration between composer Heloise Tunstall-Behrens and artist/writer/director Roswitha Gerlitz. The women share a common fascination with the behaviour of bees, which also inspired their first project, Be the Bee. With an electronic soundscape by Auclair and the acoustic voices of ten women, The Swarm earns its subtitle, “A Choral Celebrations of Bees.”

The cylindrical space boasts a high ceiling and plenty of echo off its raw, concrete walls, and though there was clear delineation of audience and performers, it was easy to feel immersed in the sound and action.

Tunstall-Behrens and Gerlitz seem to collect influences in this piece, building sound out of everything from Euclidean rhythms to Zimbabwean Mbira music, to the pheromones of the Queen Bee. The sparse moments of text are an adapted mix of original words by Tunstall-Behrens and Maurice Maeterlinck’s Spirit of the Hive.


There is indeed a story to The Swarm, which follows a hive of bees who are on the move, in search of a new home for future generations. We first meet the emcee-like Queen Bee, sung by Hannah Mason, whose operatic sound sets her apart from the choral blend of the bee-women. Introduced and intrigued, we watched and listened as the bees find each other, and begin their moving house as a hive.

The Swarm is generally a cappella singing, with a constant sound texture of low rumblings, vague city sounds, and the echoing masses of an entire colony buzzing away. The text is set in scattered syllables, and the singers create tight, curious harmonies that evolve minimalistically. Chords are built and transformed slowly, one note at a time, weaving short melodic and rhythmic motifs around one another.

Tunstall-Behrens’ music is in clear tandem with the movement directed by Gerlitz. Both achieve an arc with a long trajectory, which for the audience wavers between a trance-like effect and insistent, almost irritating repetition. The music and movement are entirely entwined; the whole effect was of ensemble, where one voice is meaningless alone, and missed when absent from the group.

Themes of community, even sisterhood, poured through The Swarm, and we begin to get a sense of the relationship among the individuals in the hive. They were curious together, scared together, and when they finally take flight together, there was something reminiscent of Wagner’s Valkyries.

Also, huge kudos to the performers; we have no idea how they memorized it.

The Swarm plays two more performances at Brunel Tunnel, September 21 and 22. Click here for more details and to purchase tickets. Whet your appetite below with this trailer, courtesy of The Quorum:

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