Opera tribute to Sheffield Women of Steel

Rehearsals for a new Sheffield City Opera production, Women of Steel
Rehearsals for a new Sheffield City Opera production, Women of Steel

A new opera written by a Sheffield woman that will be premiered at a weekend festival is celebrating the city’s Women of Steel.

Celia Lock was inspired to write Women of Steel when she was looking for local stories as the basis of a production for Sheffield City Opera.

She said: “I’ve been with Sheffield City Opera for the last 10 years.

“We wrote our own opera in 2016, called Donna and her Mobile, I was one of the writing team for that.
“Now we’ve got into this mode of writing for ourselves.”

They were looking for a show to perform for a Classical Sheffield weekend festival in March, where one of the themes is women and music. The weekend coincides with International Women’s Day on March 8.

The inspiring story of Sheffield women who worked in munitions factories and steelworks seemed a perfect fit.

Celia said: “I’d seen that statue at the side of the City Hall and wondered about the women.”

She said that Sheffield Telegraph editor Nancy Fielder’s book was an important part of her research and she also looked at interviews with the women that were conducted by University of Sheffield researchers.

Celia was excited to find that music was an integral part of the working day. 

She said: “Ours is a classical tribute but with popular songs from the time, such as ‘I’m the girl that makes the thing-a-me-bob that’s going to win the war’.

“We’ve also got an Andrews Sisters song because they were on the radio at the time. The women sang all day long. 

“The men called them the canaries because they were singing all the time. That’s what got them through.

“They were working 12-hour days, six days a week.”

The show also uses operatic pieces such as the Anvil Chorus and Casta Diva, which is sung as the bombs rain down.

Celia said the show looks at the friendships the women forged, the sheer tough grind of the work and the prejudice they faced from male workers.

Other issues highlighted in the show include the women’s lack of training and drastically lower pay than their male counterparts.

One story that touched Celia showed the women’s support for each other: “One woman turned up wearing a boiler suit about three sizes too big. The men just pointed and laughed at her. She didn’t want to come the next day.

“Another woman put some pins in it and spent all night taking it in on a sewing machine. It helped that girl settle down into the job. It shows the growing camaraderie and the challenges they faced.”

Celia stressed that although the plot has been inspired by the stories of women such as Kathleen Roberts, Ruby Gascoigne, Dorothy Slingsby and Kit Sollitt, none of the characters is directly based on any of the Women of Steel.

A 45-minute version of the show will be performed at Kelham Island Museum on March 9, taking the story up to the Sheffield Blitz of December 1940. 
Tickets: classicalsheffield.org.uk.

The group hope to put on the full show later in the year, spanning all the war years, and are looking for a suitable venue.