After watching Blue Peter’s mop-headed Barney muck around with shadow puppets whilst explaining to his tea-time telly audience some of the technical intricacies of bringing The Firework-Maker’s Daughter to life, devoting little of his valuable screen time to discussing David Bruce’s music (or much of what would set it apart from a Year 4 Art class), I understood that really with every example of theatrical musical performance (be it Opera or One Direction), it is likely to be the visual aspects that engage and inspire children most immediately.
Blue Peter’s producers understood that. And so did the Creatives behind this ‘children’s Opera’, directed by John Fulljames and co-produced by The Opera Group and Opera North in association with ROH2 and Watford Palace Theatre. This heart-warming dose of family-friendly theatre, based on the Philip Pullman book, has graphic and pictorial curiosities at its core, using aforementioned shadow puppets, old-school overhead projectors, and other familiar friends of the primary school classroom (glitter, corrugated cardboard, and wibbly-wobbly parachute fabric).
That’s not to say that the music of this production is of little importance. Far from it. In fact, if something doesn’t sound appealing, even the most polite of children will be the first to tell you about it. Bruce’s score, featuring hypnotic Eastern-influenced percussion alongside the beguiling Monteverdian laments of a countertenor elephant, take centre stage, quite literally, as the animated band forms the physical backdrop for the show’s events. In addition, Bruce’s frequent use of text repetition (essentially a stock Operatic device in itself) amounts to the ‘Again, again!’ Teletubbies-style of narrative delivery children are accustomed to.
But how did the children react? Frankly, I was amazed by the calm and receptive behaviour. However, One of my companions (ever the pragmatist) pointed out that it’s not just every child that gets treated to a Saturday afternoon’s entertainment at the Royal Opera House. She’s right. It’s possible that, for little Tarquin and Clementine, this mightn’t have been their first experience of Opera at all, or that their parents had been grooming them for this day since their first excerpt of ‘Mozart for Babies’ in the car home for the Neonatal unit.
Having toured an Opera into various schools, my companion was all too aware of the dangerous ripple effect that can occur when one boisterous child decides that the only possible solution to the implausible attack of wailing sounds emanating from these strangely dressed imposters is to clamp its hands tightly over its ears. Before long, you have a school hall full of ‘hear no evil’s.
One child did leave quite early on with his hands over his ears and his disheartened, short-changed parental figure shuffling him awkwardly towards the foyer. It’s easy to say that he was just acting up, or that the sound of the Operatic voice, at first potentially alien, is an acquired taste. But the reality may be that, with children being the most honest of us all, he just hated the sound and, for him, that reaction might never soften.
Equally, one of my other adult companions pointed out that he would have loved something like this as a child. That while he had always been taken to orchestral and choral concerts, it was now quite clear to him that Opera’s winning combination of drama and music were more his thing. So why should we assume that if a child doesn’t immediately respond to ‘Classical’ music, they wont enjoy Opera given a little bit of encouragement?
Of course, Opera for children is nothing new, and there have been many Operas written for children along with dozens of companies currently producing Operatic work specifically for little ones. Fittingly, Scottish Opera has developed a show for those very little ones who would probably be thoroughly at home having strange, unintelligible warbling sounds made at them for extended periods of time.
In my opinion, ‘Opera for children’ and ‘Opera for adults’ would be best illustrated by a Venn Diagram with two circles essentially placed on top of each other, with the only areas not overlapping bearing the words ‘Sex’ and ‘No Sex’. The other essential ingredients are virtually identical: heroes (or heroines), forces of evil, a machine to rage against, and a sense of adventure, tragedy and eventual balancing of the scales. Maybe I should add to that something about extreme gore, given some of my experiences of late…
As an adult watching The Firework-Maker’s Daughter, it occurred to me that it’s just a bit more fun going to an Opera when you can pretend to be seven again. Kids often remind us that actually its okay to join in, and to really give ourselves over to the performance. Laugh out loud if it’s funny, sigh (or even cry) if the mood takes you, and gasp in amazement when something out-of-the-ordinary happens on stage. Actually, wouldn’t most Opera audiences benefit from the occasional burst of oh-so-adorable state-the-obvious commentary thrown in for good measure?
On reflection, maybe not. Mozart’s probably better off without “he’s behind you”.