Ice Cream The Opera

Poet Ian McMillan has written an opera about ice cream. He gives us the scoop.

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Think of outdoor opera and you might imagine a performance in the grand setting of an English stately home but Ice Cream: The Opera offers something different. The 30-minute contemporary chamber piece, featuring four singers and a community chorus, premieres as part of Bradford Festival, but not from a stage.

“It’s the world’s first opera ever performed from ice cream vans,” says writer Ian McMillan, best known for his poetry and as the presenter of BBC Radio Three’s The Verb.

The opera tells the story of Romano and Geetha, who come from rival Bradford ice cream companies and who fall in love. Their parents fight and the two lovers get caught in the crossfire. “It’s a simple plot, kind of like Romeo and Juliet but with ice cream,” says McMillan. “I can’t give any spoilers but I bet there’s a flake and some raspberry sauce involved.”

Bradford-based Freedom Studios, which commissioned the piece, says the city’s multicultural population and the arrival in the late 19th and early 20th century of ice cream makers from Italy was behind the idea for the opera. Live music, composed by Russell Sarre, will accompany McMillan’s words and intertwines 19th century romantic opera with a flavour of Indian music, reflecting the two communities at the heart of the story.

McMillan and Sarre developed the piece through an exchange of emails and then in face-to-face rehearsals, a process that took a couple of years. For the most part, McMillan provided the words and then Sarre wrote the music around them, although McMillan says he was never precious about his work. “I would always say to him: ‘Look, the words are not sacred to me. You can do what you want with them.’”

McMillan also had to consider how he needed to tailor his language to the operatic form and to the setting. “You’ve got to write a lot of vowels because it’s easier to sing vowels than consonants,” he says. “And you’ve got to make it simple because it’s only going to be heard once from an ice cream van.”

This isn’t the first foray into the genre for McMillan, who has been poet in residence for the English National Opera and who is also working on two other operas himself, one for children and the other in the Yorkshire dialect. It’s a form he feels is perfect for these terrible, angry, fractured times because a lot of opera is about “shouting”, he says. “Opera wears its heart on its sleeve.”

And while the plot may be simple, the idea of exploring cultural differences through the medium of opera and ice cream was something that attracted McMillan to the project. “Who would have thought that an opera about ice cream could been so relevant to now, but it is. It’s like, why can’t we all just eat ice cream rather than fighting each other? It’s would be so much easier.”

The community-based setting was another factor that drew McMillan to the project. “A lot of people are nervous of going to theatres because they think it’s not for them. But doing this in the middle of Bradford, people won’t have to go into a building to see it, they will just be walking by.

“Of course, it’s less controllable. You don’t know quite what’s going to happen but that sort of makes it more exiting.”

Ice Cream: The Opera will be performed in Bradford’s City Park as part of the Bradford Festival, 30 July (

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