Speechless Opera by Cat Hope performed at Hamburg HfMT’s Ligeti Festival

Digital Score: https://vimeo.com/383439576

Full dataset: https://rdmc.nottingham.ac.uk/handle/internal/10797

Speechless is a wordless, animated notation opera intended as a personal response to the experiences of refugees around the world. The opera premiered at the Perth Festival in 2019 and the performance at the Ligeti Festival was the European premiere of the chamber concert edition. The starting point for the opera was Hope’s observation of the political response to the Australian Human Rights Commission’s 2014 report “The Forgotten Children: National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention”. A close examination of this document and the damning facts it contained inspired a radical idea for a libretto about the voicelessness of asylum seekers and refugees seeking protection. Rather than setting the words to music on the 315 pages, as one would expect from an opera, the material was extracted from the account to create an animated, graphic score. Colour schemes, drawings, tables and photos from the report were copied and manipulated to create the score, leaving the singers without words. In this way, the score provides the libretto and the music at the same time. The opera is responsive to the environment and people in each place where it is performed, but the soloists are always women or non-binary people preferably from different cultural backgrounds.

The animated digital score of the opera was both a central system of cues and controls for all the various parts such as lighting, spatialization and video as well as the distributor of individually animated parts to the musicians, diffusion engineer, live electronics musician and lighting operator. The original parts of the animated score were created in Illustrator but with help from Python script programming by Aaron Wyatt, the score and parts were distributed in Decibel ScorePlayer to individual players’ iPads via AirDrop. The music features long, pulseless tones, and as such many ‘lines’ feature in the score. The Decibel ScorePlayer facilitates reading this information as music notation. The score is made up of a range of colours (as parts). Performers choose a pitch, but the movement of that pitch is described in the score. In addition, the conductor is required to guide the musicians in their interpretation of the score, giving them cues and breath marks for entry as well as shaping the content of musical lines.


From the onset of the original opera creation which premiered in Perth, Cat Hope was interested to know how musicians from different backgrounds would approach it. For this reason, in the past productions as well as in the most recent musicians from various cultural backgrounds, and a broad range of styles like classical opera, free improv and sound art were involved. In this version of the opera, Cat also involved a Ukrainian refugee choir as opposed to community choirs in the Perth production. Here again, she was hoping that the openness and accessibility of the digital score of Speechless would enable musicians from diverse musical training backgrounds to take part and form meaningful relationships with the digital score.

The centrality of the digital score as a system in control of all of the operations was important in this version of Speechless. As the previous Opera version was tailored to the specific space of its premiere so was this version making use of the Meyer Constellation and lighting setup of the space where it was performed. The lighting was also changed but reflected the original design. The placement of the smaller chamber orchestra was different this time prioritizing paired groups of musicians. One of the objectives of this version of the animated digital score was the facilitation of visibility for individual parts, players were able to highlight their parts while maintaining the full score visibility.


Similar to the premiered version of the opera, this version also relied on the rehearsal process with singers and instrumentalists, prioritizing longer sessions with the soloists-singers to shape the work. In addition to the digital score of the opera being easily accessible as the pitches were open for interpretation and intuitive for the musicians to use, Cat Hope explained the parts individually to the instrumentalist and singers in case they had any questions about the system, content or interpretation of the digital score. As in the previous production of the opera, having a reliable team of collaborators was very important to the process of creation.

Critical Insights from the Analysis


The digital score of the opera was a central controlling mechanism of all the elements and was an important material that the musicians connected to. The composer and the musicians felt they facilitated opportunities for relationship-building and made the deepest connection with the elements listed below.

Animated graphic score

  • most musicians made a connection to the familiarity of the graphic score notation interface which was animated through a scrolling timeline
  • musicians enjoyed the flexibility of seeing all the other parts while also highlighting their own
  • despite the familiarity with the graphic symbols, input from the composer and the conductor facilitated the meaning-making process for the musicians with the notation
  • musicians found that they could follow the scrolling timeline as a gesture in time, it felt natural and because of the slowness of the timeframe they could get into the breathing of the piece even without the conductor
  • some challenges presented by the scrolling timeline were that it was not easy to see and connect to the whole overview of the opera’s structure as it was happening in the moment of the performance
  • some singer-soloists also expressed a preference for not having to look at the animated interface all the time but having the freedom to look up at the audience and communicate the work
  • the soloists and the musicians also expressed their concern about giving too much attention to the animated score and less to each other
  • the conductor had to practice with the animated score to internalize her connection to it, at first she could not intuit when the cursor line would be coming to prepare a breathing cue for everyone
  • the scrolling score system also made the conductor question her role at first but through the rehearsal process, she quickly realized that her cues were important to inspire musicians to interpret the musical gestures, the silences and the spaces in between
  • the soloists felt like it was a new experience to perform the work with an animated digital score as there was a lot of ‘in the moment creativity’ vs. memorizing and delivering a classically notated score that some of them were more used to
  • one of the singer-soloists said that following the score closely allowed her to enter into a dynamic between the four singers isolating their experiences in the room, perhaps as a metaphor for the larger topic of refugees and their isolation that the opera was representing
  • some musicians also felt that the animated digital score demanded their full attention however they valued the advantages of being able to form larger musical relationships within the ensemble facilitated by synchronization of everyone’s part as well as the ability to see the full score at any given time besides their individual parts
  • having a scrolling cursor line and a conductor still did not mean that extreme precision from the players was demanded, both soloists and musicians felt that the work was not too vulnerable and could absorb some slight deviations
  • this helped in supporting their interpretation, not over-focusing on precise pitches and rhythmic execution but instead giving into the flow of the performance

Notation and Gestures

  • the composer wanted the musicians to have a smooth and direct relationship with the glissandi gestures in the animated score that ‘it looks like what it sounds’
  • musicians felt the glissandi were straightforward gestures for them, in which the texture of the glissandi line was open for interpretation
  • overall, musicians came to understand that the gestures were more important than the pitches as they were required to play different pitches than their partner where sometimes changes of pitches could overlap towards the same range/pitch
  • musicians felt like every gesture was precisely pre-defined and was very clear
  • some musicians saw the whole score as a gesture that they felt was very organic and promoted breathing and playing together
  • the conductor also felt that the notated gestures were well composed, giving musicians space to connect to the materials of the digital score, to interpret and to improvise

Sound world

  • the Ukrainian choir remarked to the composer that the opera sounds like sounds in the war zone to them
  • the composer thinks that emotionally there’s some connection between the war and the soundworld in the opera, so maybe it sounds mysterious or scary or frightening or surprising to the choir
  • in composing the opera, the composer feels like she used a systematic approach to something quite emotional for her and that the opera sounds like how the composer felt when she read the report
  • like in all of Cat’s music, the focus in the opera was on low-frequency sound and the timbral quality where the melody is not the main focus
  • the composer likes to explore the world of 270 Hertz and lower, what happens to texture in that space with really long form sounds without pulse
  • this creates a type of mysterious darkness that she is deliberately aiming for
  • in this chamber version of the opera, Cat was initially worried if the same quality of low sounds she was aiming for would be present but was satisfied in the end and also with the addition of electronics
  • at some points, the choir is diffused through the Meyer constellation system and there are three different diffusion techniques. One is a scattering, which every time a new sound starts, sends it to a different speaker, another one is a simple amplification and another is a swirling effect that tracks the sound around the audience
  • because of spatialisation, performers and the audience could experience it very differently depending on where they are in the space
  • the singers found the dislocation of their sound a little bit difficult for them during the performance because some of them could not hear their partner’s voice clearly during the performance

Concept Inspiration

  • colour played an important role in the composer’s concept of the opera, 4 colours of the costumes were also in the lighting design: pink, green, blue and red
  • these are the only colours that appear in the overhead lighting and the light bars and in the video colours
  • lighting colour moments are closely related to singers’ costumes’ colours and would alight when they were singing
  • the colours of the flag costumes were taken from the children’s drawings from the Australian Forgotten Children’s School report
  • most of the shapes and colours in the projected videos related to the animated score
  • the digital score material uses a different colour palette than that of the costumes, it is inspired more by children’s drawings from the report, some symbols like the bars were taken directly from the report, stretched and transformed to suit the graphic score composition
  • to the composer, the costume represented the set – it is with and through the costume and related items that performers would also form relationships and interact
  • the musicians saw the whole score as a symbolic metaphor that helped and guided them to find their interpretation of the animated score based on the information provided
  • there were a lot of symbolic metaphors built into the digital score such as flags and their colours functioning as transformational material and also as costumes for the singers
  • in the original premiere of the opera flags were thought of as interactive material for the singers whose role changed when interacting with other flags
  • being wrapped in flags and later flags transforming into backpacks, represented to some singers someone leaving their previous life behind as a refugee and fleeing, they found this moment very emotional and difficult in the opera


  • the composer believes that the openness and directness of the digital score enable musicians from very disparate backgrounds to come together in the performance of Speechless
  • musicians that might not have been in the right mindset such as the refugee choir but were still able to express themselves and communicate through this work
  • musicians felt that the score encouraged comprovisation, an invitation to adjust things and to change them, inviting decisions and negotiations to be made internally by the musicians
  • the musicians and soloists felt that the digital score promoted self-expression “to open doors to self-expression”
  • the singers felt this allowed for cultural self-expression, as one of the singers was able to use her declamatory type of singing from the Kurdish traditional singing
  • other soloists also appreciated this freedom and welcomed Heja’s style of singing at that moment
  • musicians found it very relaxing to be able to choose any note to play or sing to interpret gestures in the score
  • however, some overlaps in the note range and their starting position sometimes could coincide between the pairs of musicians/singers thus these parts presented themselves as challenging and unpredictable yet reassuring as there were no ‘wrong notes’ to sing/play
  • this flexibility gave reassurance to the musicians as there was room for interpretation
  • the conductor also felt that her presence added a human element and made the score more relatable to the musician

Environment of Collaboration

  • initially, Cat saw that this type of digital score has a huge potential for collaboration both through the music and the interactions that it created between the performers and the production team
  • from the start the soloists-singers felt like the environment for the process of rehearsals created a community feeling between them where they could help each other and profit from each other’s knowledge and skills
  • they felt it was not a classical environment but inviting and making everyone feel comfortable
  • they also felt it was a very special team particularly focused on representing women’s voices in performance, composition and direction
  • in the end, it was beautifully represented when all of the singers with the choir came together physically and one person pronounced the last-first word of the opera which was ‘Us’ – representing everyone at that moment
  • the instrumental musicians also saw the whole process as very collaborative


In the original production of Speechless, the creative process was characterized by the integration of relationships and the construction of meaning. The design themes were derived directly from the music and aligned with the central themes of the work, encompassing concepts such as shelter, connection, severance, unity, shared experiences, belonging, memory, fleeting moments, identity, absence, confinement, and the overarching motif of being Speechless. The singers in the production experienced a novel development as they were exposed to a range of sensory stimuli, including lights, movements, and volume. They also noted a heightened awareness of their presence concerning other performers such as instrumentalists, soloists, choir members, and the audience. This immersive experience created a unique and transformative atmosphere, contributing to their enhanced connection with the music and overall performance.


The navigation of the flow in Speechless was made possible through the Decibel ScorePlayer, which presented an animated digital score to musicians. This technology synchronized multiple iPads, allowing musicians to interpret and respond to long, pulseless tones integrated into the score. This design facilitated a harmonious flow among musicians and the animated score.

The maintenance of this flow was attributed to the absence of technical difficulties, creating a smooth experience for musicians throughout the performance. The musicians perceived a consistent flow from start to finish, with the digital score being unobtrusive and easy to navigate. This dynamic element also generated a sense of unity, making performers feel interconnected within the production.

The connection was further established through duet moments, where musicians and singers synchronized lines while holding different pitches. This mutual coordination allowed musicians to find their pitches and harmonize, fostering a sense of connection and immersion in the moving digital score. The interaction of going together yet staying on different pitches added an element of unpredictability and surprise, creating an engaging and unique experience as it intertwined with fellow musicians.

Digital Musicianship


  • from the first production, the composer intended the score as a pluri-stylistic composition to unite musicians from different backgrounds
  • it reflects on Cat’s pluralistic background as a composer, improviser and pop musician
  • in the most recent production there are musicians from jazz, pop, session musicians, classical and new music
  • the singer-soloists were also chosen from different singing traditions: opera, classical, improvised, Kurdish
  • Cat believes that the open style of notation made the music accessible to the Ukrainian refugee choir
  • the singer-soloists also remarked on the digital score’s ability to bring people from very different musical and cultural backgrounds together, i.e. classically trained opera singers, improvisers and musicians who have never read a notated score before
  • one of the singers was from Kurdistan, and she had not previously read a traditionally or graphically notated score
  • the musicians remarked on the pluralistic approach where you could hear different styles of the singers’ musicianship coming through
  • in the free improv sections, one could include their own personality, style and cultural background if they wished

Performer’s agency

  • for the singers, the score enabled musicians to express themselves freely instead of fitting into a certain style
  • performer’s choice comes in when deciding on things that are not decided in the score
  • some improvising musicians felt that the score could still have a little bit more freedom as the free improvised sections were very short
  • the composer felt like the free sections could have been a bit looser in the performance but also remarked that perhaps this would happen if these sections were longer

Knowledge and Skill Exchange

  • the singer from the Kurdish tradition remarked that the score enabled the sharing of one’s culture and encouraged a learning process as she had never imagined taking part in an opera performance
  • the score encouraged collaboration, as the singer who was not used to interpreting graphic scores learned by following another singer’s interpretation of the graphic symbols
  • thus, it was an opportunity to share something and learn from each other
  • overall the digital score enables musicians to learn new skills from each other, be it from highly classically trained musicians or the amateur choir
  • the conductor felt like she learned to use the Decibel ScorePlayer system and how to prepare some upbeats so that the events come together
  • the composer learned about the technical aspect of running scripts in the terminal which worked for parts distribution


Transformative process

  • Cat remarks that the transformative aspects of her animated notation are that they focus on the actual sound rather than traditional elements like pitch and harmony
  • the transformative process of rehearsals and performance is highlighted, with the notion that continuous practice would lead to further transformation
  • in Speechless, the digital score became a gateway for transformation and the need for a more holistic understanding of art and social interaction
  • with the new technology of the digital score, musicians felt that they were creating a multidimensional and multi-central experience

Positive experiences

  • the composer remarked that many musicians told her later that it was a transformative experience for them
  • some audience also expressed how great of an experience they had
  • for the performers too, coming across musicians with such different backgrounds was a transformative experience that helped to transform cultural biases and bring people together as a community
  • the conductor also liked the whole context and found it to be an overwhelmingly positive experience
  • the score enabled musicians to be closer and to be part of something greater - something communal
  • the musicians felt like it was a great team - positive interactions with the composer and other singers, musicians, also all women, very good energy
  • the singers felt like they shared something - it was a very intense moment between the four of them


Speechless Opera by Cat Hope was a unique and innovative project that combined elements of graphic notation, technology, and collaboration to explore the experiences of refugees and asylum seekers. The digital score and its various elements played a central role in shaping the musicians’ experience and facilitating their connection with the performance. The graphic score, animated scrolling system, and use of colour were particularly notable components that influenced how musicians engaged with the music and each other. The concept of openness and the ability of musicians to express themselves freely through the score is a significant aspect of the opera. The notion of “comprovisation” (a blend of composition and improvisation) and the flexibility in interpreting the score allowed for a range of musical backgrounds and styles to come together in the performance, fostering collaboration and learning from each other. The environment of collaboration and the emphasis on women’s voices and representation in the production created a sense of community and shared purpose among the performers. The transformative process, both for the musicians individually and for the collective group, was a central theme, with the opera serving as a vehicle for personal growth, cultural understanding, and artistic development. Overall, the positive experiences, transformative outcomes, and innovative use of technology underscore the power of digital scores to bridge cultural divides and create meaningful connections. It’s a compelling exploration of how a unique approach to composition and performance can lead to impactful and emotionally resonant results.