Serenading Adela: A Street Opera is a major new community theatre event now in rehearsal.
It celebrates a colourful protest on January 7, 1918, when, on a hot summer night during World War I, supporters of British-born suffragette and anti-war militant Adela Pankhurst gathered outside the bluestone walls of the Women’s Prison at Pentridge in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg.
Initially about 50 people “understood to be socialists, and a majority of them women”, gathered to “serenade” Adela. “Solidarity Forever” and “The Red Flag” were sung. The crowd cheered and coo-eed, and let off coloured lights.
Word spread, and the crowd quickly swelled to 300 shortly after 9pm. After police arrested two people, the singers moved to a house opposite the police station where “for nearly two hours sounds of vocal revelry by night disturbed the calm”.
Adela Pankhurst had been jailed for her energetic anti-war campaigning. The federal government had tough penalties for opposing the war. The population was divided by the war, conscription, increasing poverty, high food prices and the Great Strike of 1917.
Women leaders were prominent in working-class unrest. Many were jailed for anti-war activity, including Industrial Workers of the World members in Sydney and John Curtin (later Prime Minister) in Melbourne.
Pankhurst came from a British suffragette family, moving to Australia after tensions grew with her family: her mother Emmaline and sister Christobel believed their focus should be on women’s suffrage alone, while Adela believed in fighting for socialism.
In 1914, Emmaline gave her a one-way ticket to Melbourne and an introduction to Vida Goldstein. Pankhurst became a key anti-war activist with the Women’s Peace Army and the Victorian Socialist Party.
One undercover police officer assigned to spy on her noted: “I have seldom heard a speaker who held such sway over her audience.”
Serenading Adela: A Street Opera brings together singer Lisa-Maree Parker (as Adela); a choir of about 60 people accompanied by accordionist Dave Evans and a street band (led by Miranda Hill, from the Riff Raff Marching Band). They will be joined by an Unruly Mob, playing the crowd, who should swell the numbers to 100 or more.
The “Street Opera” is being written and directed by artistic director Jeannie Marsh, well-known for her work with community choirs and progressive music theatre events. It tells the story by weaving together the songs that were sung on the famous night, peace songs from the time, and new works. For the finale, Marsh has set to music Doris Blackburn’s “Peace Hymn”.
Anyone wishing to join the Unruly Mob are urged to register, with rehearsals starting in December.
[Inquiries and registrations welcome. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0490 182 041. More information including rehearsal details: https://brunswickcoburganticonscription.wordpress.com.]