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Isolation Arias: Jo Nockels

This week, Opera North’s Head of Projects, Jo Nockels, takes us on a musical trip around the world as she reveals her lockdown listening.

“Over the years I have spent many a lax hour obsessing over my Desert Island Discs and these Isolation Arias have proved no easier to narrow down. The brief – to select wonderful vocal music – offers so much richness and, as part of my job is programming the Howard Assembly Room at Opera North, I wanted to reflect the eclectic range of extraordinary voices and vocal music that we look for in the space. I gave myself one extra rule: that all the pieces should be ones that take me somewhere else, whether by voice alone, narrative or the sense of place they make in my imagination.”

Listen to the Spotify playlist »


1. Arvo Pärt: ‘My Heart’s in the Highlands’

I love almost all Pärt’s vocal music but there is something about the spareness and clarity of every word in this setting of Robert Burns’ poem (sung by Else Torp) that cuts to the quick.

I programmed this as part of a concert in the Howard Assembly Room exploring the soundtrack of Paolo Sorrentino’s film The Great Beauty. There is a windiness in the organ part that takes me straight to a mountain top while its controlled repetition is perfect melancholy.

2. Monteverdi, L’incoronazione di Poppea: ‘Pur ti miro’

This duet has already been chosen by Richard Mantle in his Isolation Arias, but I couldn’t leave it out. I made a live performance installation of the piece in 2015 in which it was sung on loop for five hours, so I have heard it hundreds of times and have never tired of it.

On one level a swooningly gorgeous love duet, I have always heard a darker push and pull of passion, and above all power, in the interweaving melodies of Nero and Poppea. You can sense an undercurrent of the way the historical story played out after the opera ends. It is this combination that keeps me enthralled.

3. Fabrizio de André: ‘Hotel Supramonte’

The music of Fabrizio de André is the soundtrack of the years I spent living in Italy, above all of driving around Umbria. His voice is warm, intimate and almost casual as he sings about ordinary tragedy and the lives of the marginalised. In Italy, he is as well-loved and highly regarded as Jacques Brel and Georges Brassens, particularly for the poetry of his lyrics.

I could have chosen many songs but the simplicity of this bitter-sweet love song avoids some of his unfortunate experiments with synthesizers that haven’t aged too well!

4. Sister Rosetta Tharpe: ‘Bring Back Those Happy Days’

Self-introduced with a monologue about her childhood, this song is a slice of joy.

The amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a musical innovator and hugely influential. She sang gospel music with great bluesy guitar and old time influence, thus bringing together three of my musical loves. She truly broke ground in a time when that was incredibly difficult to do for a black woman in America.

5. Huun-Huur-Tu: ‘Orphan’s Lament’ from the album Ancestors Call

This choice is based on the memory of hearing it performed live in the Howard Assembly Room.

Music doesn’t tend to make me cry, but this song by the Tuvan band Huun-Huur-Tu accompanied only by the igil – a two-stringed bowed instrument – performed in a hushed room full of people, had tears rolling down my cheeks.

Visa problems mean that it’s now pretty much impossible for the band to come to the UK, so this seems a precious and unrepeatable moment in time.

6. J. S. Bach, Johannes-Passion: Opening Chorale

The opening of the St. John Passion sounds to me like it starts in the middle of an irresistible drama that draws you immediately into its course. While the music stills almost to silence a number of times, each time it rises, I feel the renewed energy with real intensity.

If these were my Desert Island Discs, this might well be the one I’d save from the waves.

7. Muluqèn Mèllèssè: ‘Hedetch alu’ from the album Éthiopiques Vol.10

The rediscovery of this album has been a big part of my lockdown soundtrack.

Drawn from a Golden Age of Ethiopian music in the early seventies, it’s full of wonderful music, and this track in particular, by the great Ethiopian singer Muluqèn Mèllèssè, is full of the ‘dark light’ that pervades this music.

8. Mariam The Believer: ‘Blood Donation’

This song is by the Swedish-Iranian singer Mariam Wallentin, best known as half of Wildbirds and Peacedrums.

Her voice can stand the hairs on your arms on end, and this represents all the hard-edged, unusual pop that I love so much.

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