Member blog: A story for our troubled times

Tricia Zipfel, member of the Vox Holloway choir, talks to us about the most emotionally-challenging project her group has taken on.

The Sun Does Shine oratorio is based on the true story of Anthony Ray Hinton, an innocent man who spent 28 years on death row in Alabama before finally walking free in 2015. As we were undertaking this project, we asked ourselves - how do we sing about something as dark as death row and as distant as Alabama without simply exploiting Anthony Ray’s suffering for the sake of our art? How do we convey with integrity the horrors of a racist system alongside the power of love and forgiveness through music? How do we tell the story in a way that is meaningful to a UK audience?  

This piece was composed by Harvey Brough, our Music Director and composer in residence, with a libretto by Justin Butcher, our founder. Artistically, they have created a musical work steeped in African-American language and style – pentecostal hymns, blues, gospel. The choir, alongside our soloists, have had to embrace that music and provide a dramatic narrative - to create something more like opera than what we typically perform.

three musicians looking at a piano music sheet

Composer Harvey Brough sits at the piano and works through the oratorio with soloists Wills Morgan, who plays Anthony Ray Hinton, and Christina Gill, who plays Anthony Ray's mother

Communicating this story in language that is raw and meant to shock was not always comfortable. We had to deepen our understanding of the traumatic legacy of slavery, post-civil rights policies of mass-incarceration, and police brutality that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. While these issues may be much starker in the USA, they do not stop there, but have profound implications for us all. 

In developing the project, we partnered with the Prisoner Reform Trust (PRT) in 2020 and with the Irene Taylor Trust (ITT) in 2023. PRT opened our eyes to the need for criminal justice reforms here in the UK, where prison sentences have become much longer, and where many prisoners have no idea when, or sometimes even if, they will be released. From 2020, choir members wrote to long-term prisoners and began to understand more about this most excluded section of society. It challenged our own assumptions and stereotypes and gave the project an authenticity that helped win the trust of Anthony Ray himself, his lawyer and his publishers – without which the project could not have happened. 

Trailer for Between the Bars, the documentary of the making of The Sun Does Shine

In 2023, we released our documentary Between the Bars, exploring how the choir approached this uplifting and disruptive story - one that asks uncomfortable questions and seeks to put a spotlight on the way we deal with crime and punishment in the UK. We are now working with ITT on a radio programme to take Anthony Ray’s story and our music into prisons across the UK. 

Premiering The Sun Does Shine in 2022 was thrilling. But just as thrilling was a visit shortly afterwards to HMP Coldingley, where we sang extracts to over 100 prisoners. They loved it and thanked us for singing about their lives and their experience. It clearly meant a lot to them. 

Watch the 30-minute Between the Bars documentary on Vimeo

Find out more about Vox Holloway on their website and follow them on Facebook, Instagram and X (Twitter)

If your choir wants to perform The Sun Does Shine, please get in touch