1513: A Ships’ Opera

by Richard Wilson and Zatorski + Zatorski

A Cultureship Project Commissioned by the Thames Festival Trust

1513: A Ships’ Opera is an astonishing water-borne performance for the river Thames. An armada of extraordinary historic vessels from the age of sail, steam and diesel performed in a live, moving, operatic concerto of ships’ steam whistles, bells, horns, hooters, sirens and cannon as the centrepiece of the 2013 Thames Festival.

Sculptor Richard Wilson RA, twice Turner Prize nominee and designer of Slipstream for Heathrow 2014 has, since 1983, as a member of the then notorious Bow Gamelan Ensemble, been associated in co/creating a number of one off large-scale experimental music performances, using the maritime voices of foghorns, ship’s whistles, sirens, bells, explosions and flares. For 1513,  Wilson, in collaboration with Zatorski + Zatorski gathered 3 historic steam ships, 1 historic diesel tug, 2 trading Thames tugs, 1 battleship, a 19th century sailing ship, 1 Trinity lightship, an iconic bridge, 8 Trinity House bells and a large number of rare ships whistles, foghorns and hooters from the private collection of Rowland Humble, to form a maritime orchestra. Each ship had a cargo of lost voices, appropriate to its era and type: the steam ships have steam whistles, the diesel ships have air hooters, the sail ship has bells.

Each vessel had been modified to turn the very ship itself into a playable musical instrument. Working with fabricators CSI International, Hull,  2 large rigs were produced, to sit atop the holds of the VIC 56/ VIC 96 and enables the steam from the ships own boilers to be channelled into multiple whistle voices, so that the ships themselves can be played like an organ.

Down in the boiler room of the VICs, men shovelled coal into the fire, to feed the ship, to make the steam, to move the vessel and feed the breath of the different whistles that sung to us. The Kent’s air start expansion tanks fed the extraordinary horn rig and a plethora of valves allows each hooter to be played individually. Here were formed entirely new instruments, utilising the ships themselves, all acoustic, all “live” sculpture. The ship is not carrying the instruments, it is the instrument.

On 14th September 2013 The first act of this balletic, symphonic maritime performance began at sea, at the very mouth of the Thames Estuary. A lone steam tug, the historic Barking, one of the last its kind in existence, made its way from Sea Reach, by the wreck of the SS Richard Montgomery, and into the tideway to Central London, all the while broadcasting through the physical air with her swag of steam whistles and drawing her journey on the internet via online GPS transmission.

The vessel finally met with the mustered ships around Trinity Buoy Wharf in East London, the fuse to ignite and activate the other main performers of the opera: a spectacular Trinity Light ship LV95 pulled by two handsome red diesel tugs, a brace of magnificent Clyde puffer historic steam ships, VIC 56 and VIC 96, clothed in an array of huge steam whistles, the historic diesel tug Kent, its stern proud with sweep of trumpet-like horns and a twin-masted 19th century sailing klipper, De Walvisch, bedecked with Whitechapel-founded Trinity Light ships’ bells. Each whistle, bell, hooter and foghorn is the collected vocal cords of a ship of provenance – lost voices calling again.

The second act of the opera was performed against the backdrop of the Millennium Dome, to an audience at Trinity Buoy Wharf, home of London’s last lighthouse, and where Trinity House once manufactured the buoys that today still guide the world’s mariners. Then this magnificent fleet processed up river to the pool of London.

Tower Bridge, the gatekeeper to the city, was itself part of the performance: as the bascules rose, the curtain opened and the company of ships entered the theatre of the pool, joined now by the battleship Belfast in an acknowledgment of our historic naval might. Thus began the main act and culmination of the performance. As the bascules re-closed, the Trinity Light Vessel LV 95 swung her beam of light, illuminating the architecture old and new, from the Shard to the Tower of London. This was the first time a Trinity Light Vessel has thrown her lifesaving beam in the pool of London, 500 years after the foundation of the great Trinity House Corporation and 500 metres from Trinity House itself.

The balletic dance of the ships was illuminated by ship’s searchlights, casting shadows of the vessels on the surrounding architecture. Plumes of coal smoke and steam painted the stage. Each ship was played by a renowned experimental musician and conducted with semaphore by the conductor Ansuman Biswas aloft the ship of light.

By starting in the mouth of the Thames at Sea Reach and ending through Tower Bridge in the very heart of London, this performance acknowledges that the wealth and power of Britain is historically entwined with the tidal power of the Thames and British maritime excellence. It also acknowledges the 500th anniversary of Trinity House, which exists to uphold the safety of shipping and the well being of seafarers throughout the British Isles and at deep sea. In 1513 a group of mariners sent a petition to King Henry VIII to tell him about the lack of suitably qualified sailors to pilot ships on the River Thames, which led to the Royal Charter a year later.

The performance also celebrates the working people of the river. All ships were crewed by people of the river: working and ex Thames watermen, lightermen and PLA skippers, from generations of river families. Each ship has a relationship to the Thames and to various periods of our maritime and industrial history, of sail, coal and diesel.

This was a unique opportunity for Londoners to hear an array of lost river voices, including some of the largest steam whistles in existence. They witnessed an extraordinary fleet of historic ships, modified to become marvellous instruments, in an operatic performance stretching 40 miles from the sea to the Pool of London. It was a breathtaking spectacle to educate and delight, celebrating the importance of London’s shared maritime past and present.

To visit the “Ships’ Opera” site, click here