Tuesday 04 April 2023


AN Experimental feminist Northern Ireland film-opera about class and conflict, is to be premiered in Belfast this month as part of a series of events to mark the anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

History of the Present, a collaboration by writer Maria Fusco and American-British filmmaker Margaret Salmon, tells the story of ordinary lives, still dominated today by the looming presence of the Belfast peacelines. This semi-autobiographical, ground-breaking film brings working class women’s voices to the forefront, amplifying untold stories of marginalised communities and collective trauma. 

The 45-minute piece is composed by the internationally respected composer Annea Lockwood, with improvised vocals provided by French opera singer, Héloïse Werner. It is the first opera of its kind to look at working class voices from Northern Ireland, with early stages of the work developed during Maria’s fellowship at the Royal Opera House in London.

Made on 35mm and SD video in the streets of Belfast, the Ulster Museum and the Royal Opera House, the work is set to be premiered at the QFT, Belfast on Wednesday, 19 April as part of a series of events organised by British Council Northern Ireland and the Belfast International Arts Festival to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

Maria, who grew up in Belfast’s Ardoyne during the Troubles, first came up with the concept while working on a documentary project for BBC Radio 4. She is no stranger to large-scale projects having been commissioned by the National Theatre Wales in 2018 to write and direct ‘ECZEMA!’ a play celebrating the 70th anniversary of the NHS.

She said: “I made a documentary for BBC Radio 4 about the peaceline I grew up beside in Ardyone, Belfast, and it involved walking along the perimeter on Alliance Avenue - it was the first time I had ever been to the other side of that peaceline. And after it was broadcast, I realised how little people know about the peacelines and thought there was more creative and critical work to be done.

“I wanted to embody the voices of working-class Northern Irish women, their role(s) in conflict zones, to ask, who has the right to speak and in what way? To me, an opera feels like an obvious choice, especially with our tendency here for a touch of the theatrical. I felt that opera needed to make more of a commitment to working-class stories and a range of accents.”

History of the Present layers sociological, cultural, and political themes from the recent history of Northern Ireland, Maria was especially interested in using different sounds from the Troubles onwards to bring the work together, including both archival and field recordings.

She said: “The opera-film features archival recordings of women’s voices from my own family recordings, made when I was a child. I’m interested in how you learn accent through tone and range, how the environment seeps into you, how you try to assimilate. We utilised other archival materials, which our singer Héloïse improvises with, so, ‘historic’ Belfast military sounds: a helicopter, a Saracen, and a riot. We made the decision in the work not to include any visual archival material, but instead to focus on the sonic. When I was growing up, you would often hide when a riot was happening not stand staring out at it, your experience of violence is largely sonic: you’re a reluctant participant.”

“We also worked with field recordings of the peaceline in Ardoyne made by composer Annea. I was deeply honoured she agreed to compose new music for the piece, her pioneering work in field-recordings has been an inspiration for a long time.  The music she composed for History of the Present has evolved out of those field recordings and she has transformed the material of the place into something which has a certain beauty and depth that may not be immediately apparent.”

“It’s a very beautiful piece, sensitively and movingly shot by artist-filmmaker Margaret Salmon. The reason we decided to make this as a film rather than a live work is that I want lots of people in different countries to see it, especially women in post conflict zones. The work seeks to present an emotional state of a post conflict city and what that feels like. It does have a heightened emotional state, but there’s also moments of humour and slapstick, which is obviously so important in the Northern Ireland psyche.”

History of The Present is supported by the British Council, Creative Scotland and the Royal Opera House, and was developed with the assistance of the Abbey Theatre/ Amharclann na Mainistreach. Following its Belfast’s premiere, the work will then tour nationally and internationally, and to the Royal Opera House 2 June, Art Night Dundee on 24 June, and Edinburgh Art Festival in August 2023, with a performance premiere in Edinburgh.

Speaking about the film, was Jonathan Stewart, Director, British Council Northern Ireland, he said: “The British Council is delighted to support History of the Present as part of an international spotlight and cultural programme marking the 25th Anniversary of the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement. The week-long programme focuses on the role of arts in divided and polarised societies, and here in Northern Ireland, artists and cultural organisations have played a crucial role in our post-conflict journey over the past 25 years.

“History of the Present is a powerful, experimental piece, that helps amplify the voices of those stories that may have been left behind. As we mark 25 years since the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement, we hope audiences can take this moment to reflect and perhaps be challenged by these new and abstract stories of Northern Ireland.” 

Richard Wakely, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of Belfast International Arts Festival, said, “As we mark this milestone anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, we have curated a special programme that invites audiences to reflect upon our shared past and consider the potential for our shared future. 

“The arts play a pivotal role in promoting understanding and empathy, stimulating conversation and action, and helping shed light on the past so that we can build a brighter and more equitable future. "History of the Present” makes a unique and vital contribution to this approach by highlighting untold stories of marginalised communities and collective trauma.”

The premiere of History of The Present at the QFT will be followed by a panel discussion with Maria Fusco, Margaret Salmon and Annea Lockwood, chaired by Curator, Annie Fletcher. For more information on the production and to buy tickets visit: https://belfastinternationalartsfestival.com/event/history-of-the-present/

History of the Present continues the British Council’s work, building connection, understanding and trust between people in the UK and overseas through arts, education and English language teaching. To find out more about their work in Northern Ireland visit nireland.britishcouncil.org or follow on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

Notes to Editor

Further quotes:

Margaret Salmon says, “Early on, Maria and I discussed the archive and a history of images representing The Troubles and Belfast’s segregated communities. We both felt strongly that any film representations should be made in the present, in Belfast today, not in the past. We filmed on a 35mm camera in various locations over the course of the production and an intuitive, searching lens became integral to our work. What does it mean to look without pre-determining what is seen... is something I thought about often when filming. Abstraction and analogue experimentation are methods we explored – split screen, double exposure, colour, blur, Vaseline on the lens - by choosing 35mm film we leaned into its peculiarities and range, also its beauty, scale and materiality.”

Composer Annea Lockwood made in-situ field recordings of the peacelines in and around the Ardoyne peaceline, where Maria grew up, Annea then evolved these into musical composition, she says: “We worked together, finding an array of sounds directly from the walls, stroking them with pebbles, with leaves, gently striking them, manipulating locks on the gates controlling access. We were learning to play the walls as an instrument and it was a lot of fun, paradoxically, given their meaning. The walls are massive, impenetrable, sheets of thick corrugated iron, covered with layers of paint and anchored in brick foundations. Their resonance is hidden, but powerful. They carry the imprint of the neighbourhood through the way they transform not only passing traffic, but also dogs barking and voices. I wanted the soundscape I composed to convey something of that weight – their physical weight and especially, the dark weight of their significance. It has been one of the deepest explorations of recent years for me to first absorb everything I could about those years in that place, then work with these sounds.”

About History of the Present: This intersectional, intergenerational feminist work forefronts working-class women’s voices to ask: who has the right to speak, and in what way? Layering sociological, cultural, and political themes from the recent history of Northern Ireland, the work exercises voice, breath and field-recording composition through a range of film techniques and operatic articulations, to amplify marginalised stories. Made on 35mm and video in the streets of Belfast, the Ulster Museum and the Royal Opera House in London, History of the Present observes how defensive architecture defines movement to enforce intersectional histories and identities within daily experiences in conflict and post-conflict zones on an international level.  Early stages of the work was developed during Maria’s fellowship at the Royal Opera House.

Maria Fusco (b. 1972) is an award-winning working-class writer, born and brought up in Ardoyne, North Belfast, now living in Scotland. Her interdisciplinary work spans the registers of critical, fiction and performance writing; she has authored six books, and written and directed four major performance works. Her work has been commissioned by bodies including: Artangel, BBC Radio 4, Film London and National Theatre Wales. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, was writer-in-residence at the Whitechapel Gallery and The Lisbon Architecture Triennale and an Engender Fellow at the Royal Opera House. She is currently Professor of Interdisciplinary Writing at the University of Dundee, previously holding academic posts at the University of Edinburgh and Goldsmiths, University of London. mariafusco.net

Margaret Salmon (b. 1975) is an artist, filmmaker, educator, cinematographer and writer. Her work has been featured in exhibitions and festivals around the globe. She is the winner of inaugural Max Mara Prize for women artists in association with the Whitechapel Gallery and took part in the British Art Show 9 (2021-23). Her solo exhibition, Monument, runs from 28 April to 18 June 2023 at Secession, Vienna. She is represented by LUX and Office Baroque Gallery and lectures at The Glasgow School of Art, in Fine Art Critical Studies and Fine Art Photography. margaretsalmon.info 

Annea Lockwood (b. 1939) is an acclaimed New Zealand-born American composer based in upstate New York. Her lifelong fascination with the visceral effects of sound in our environments and through our bodies—the way sounds unfold and their myriad “life spans”—serves as the focal point for works ranging from concert music to performance art to multimedia installations. She is the recipient of a SEAMUS Lifetime Achievement Award, and is elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her work has been presented internationally at institutions and festivals such as Lucerne Festival, Tectonics Athens Festival, Signale Graz, Counterflows International Festival of Music and Art, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and many others.

Further information: 

Supported by the British Council, Creative Scotland and the Royal Opera House, developed with the assistance of the Abbey Theatre/ Amharclann na Mainistreach.

Co-directors: Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon
Librettist: Maria Fusco
Composer: Annea Lockwood
Singer: Héloïse Werner
Dramaturg: Jude Christian
Sound Mix: Chu-Li Shewring
Running time 45 minutes 


Courtesy of the artists, Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon. Production still from History of the Present, 2023.

For media enquiries, please contact:

Claire McAuley, British Council: +44 (0)7542268752 E: Claire.McAuley@britishcouncil.org

About the British Council

The British Council is the UK’s international organisation for cultural relations and educational opportunities. We support peace and prosperity by building connections, understanding and trust between people in the UK and countries worldwide. We do this through our work in arts and culture, education and the English language. We work with people in over 200 countries and territories and are on the ground in more than 100 countries. In 2021-22 we reached 650 million people.