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Posted on 30 November 2020

Behind Doors – premiere of domestic abuse opera

“My mum was killed by my stepdad but I always blame myself”

“He kept being violent… but he knew I was pregnant”

“You suffer in silence because you have to learn to be that way”

A powerful new video opera in which domestic abuse survivors and perpetrators appear and describe their experiences and feelings was premiered on Friday 4th December.

The 40-minute opera, ‘Behind Doors’, was commissioned by The Calico Group’s domestic abuse charity, SafeNet to help more people understand the stories of those involved in domestic abuse, and, ultimately end male violence against women.

The multi-media piece has been written by composer John McHugh and performed by a string quartet made up of musicians from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra. It features two perpetrators and five survivors describing their experiences on camera and weaves the melodies in their spoken words into the performance to tell their stories in a unique and powerful way.

The seven accounts are often harrowing but each aims to deliver a positive message. Participants include:

  • A woman who has finally managed to turn her life around after years of being kept as a virtual prisoner in her own home.
  • A pregnant woman explaining how she is now rebuilding her life after she was forced to flee for the sake of her unborn child because of her partner’s violence.
  • A man speaking of his remorse after abusing women for 30 years, how he was beaten as a child and why he blames himself because his stepfather ultimately murdered his mother.
  • A young woman who arrived here from Kenya only to become trapped in a cycle of abuse, escaping one abusive relationship only to be caught in another, until she finally learned to ‘walk with her future’.
  • A man who watched his father beat his mother and started abusing his own wife after seven years of happy marriage.
  • A woman who has now escaped a lifetime of abuse and says: “You suffer in silence because you have to learn to be that way.”
  • A mother who is now able to treat ‘every as a new day’ despite almost being killed by her partner and having to leave her children to escape his violence.

The Behind Doors participants come from all over the UK and beyond but all are or have been, service users at one of the two charities.

Calico executive director Helen Thompson, who commissioned the composition, said: “I saw another, quite different project that John had done and realised that music could tell a story in a way that resonates with people in a very powerful way.

“These are each truly harrowing stories but they are important because they represent a reality that is shared by too many people but which is rarely discussed.

“We started the project before the first lockdown but the tragic rise in domestic abuse since March makes it even more important that we listen to these stories now.

“The opera itself is about inspiring a conversation and building understanding of both survivors and perpetrators of domestic abuse. It is about supporting them to move on in their lives but also about showing the vital need to work together as a society to end male violence against women in the first place.”

Liverpool-based John McHugh, of Music in Mind, said his musical score was inspired by the rhythms and patterns of speech recorded during conversations with the participants.

He added: “I was very, very surprised at how people opened up but was grateful for the honesty that they all showed.

“I think the fact that they had all been through a programme with Calico and had had lots of chance to reflect actually helped them prepare for taking part.”

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