As Welsh National Opera perform their latest family-friendly offering, Opera Play Live: Space Spectacular, Emma Schofield ventures along with her family and reflects on why we need opera that’s intended for everyone.
I’m not entirely joking when I say that one of the hardest things about becoming a parent is, without doubt, the painful realisation that your children have no musical taste whatsoever. If you’ve ever found yourself at a kids’ party suffering through the horror of songs such as the ever-popular ‘Chu Chu Ua’ (follow the link at your own peril), then you’ll know exactly what I mean. If it’s not Disney soundtracks, it’s endless gimmick songs, complete with irritating melodies and repetitive lyrics which insist you perform various actions, on repeat, forever, until the end of the known universe.
With that in mind, I approached the prospect of an afternoon at the opera with my young daughters with some trepidation, only to find myself in one of the most relaxed atmospheres I’ve ever encountered in the Wales Millennium Centre. We arrived to find the foyer had been repurposed as a hub for colouring, alien hat-making, flag designing and face painting, a lovely touch which set the tone for the performance. Once inside, the lights, costumes and orchestra made for a colourful spectacle which seemed to easily capture the attention of most of its young audience members.
The plot itself hinges on experienced children’s presenter Tom Redmond, who uses his role as a man longing to attend an alien tea party on the planet Zum Zee to guide his audience through a series of well-known opera pieces from the likes of Strauss, Puccini and Mozart. The theme is, at times, stretched a little but that doesn’t really matter as the combination of dancing aliens and a giant cloth rocket, which fills the width of the stage, are exactly what is needed to hold the attention of young minds and stop them from wandering. However much fun the props and costumes may offer, the cast still deliver a stellar performance. Jessica Robinson was clearly enjoying the freedom of playing the mischievous Mademoiselle Mercury, while the richness of Chuma Sijeqa’s voice as Baron Jupiter was impossible to ignore.
The magic behind this production may lie in that balance between gentle mickey taking about opera as a genre (summarised with the assertions that all opera contains “twists and turns” and “people who sing when they’re sad”), and the fact that both cast and orchestra still take their performances seriously enough to convey the power and emotion behind each piece. For the most part, the children in the rows around where we were sat appeared to be genuinely captivated. There were enough moments of light relief, such as an opportunity to get up and dance in the aisles to Quincy Jones’ ‘Soul Bossa Nova’, to prevent fidgeting and the only time a wave of restlessness seemed to set in was during the slightly drawn out sequence towards the end when the opera gave way to an overly-lengthy sing-along.
There are a few technical issues which still need ironing out; the sound balance, in places, was not quite right, which meant that some lines were lost beneath the combined sound of the WNO orchestra giving it full throttle and an audience which was eating, drinking and dancing its way through the performance. And, to be clear – that’s okay; it’s a performance for families, it would be unreasonable to expect such a youthful audience to sit in absolute silence, without any movement, muttering or the occasional toilet trip. A slightly more judicial use of mics would easily navigate those issues, allowing the singing to remain centre stage.
There will always be opera experts who consider this kind of performance to be sacrilegious, but the fact is we need it. As we debate the fall-out from the recent Arts Council of Wales funding review, in which a number of organisations, including Mid Wales Opera, saw their funding cut, attention is increasingly turning to what our national organisations need to be doing to justify their funding. Part of that role has to be laying the foundations for generating future generations of opera goers and that simply won’t happen without events that get children through the doors to the theatre and immersed in the sounds of the orchestra and the singers. We should be looking at events such as Opera Play Live, which run alongside the main WNO season, as an opportunity to secure the place of opera within our national culture for years to come.
I’m not going to pretend my children left singing ‘O mio babbino caro’, or begging for tickets to see Carmen, but they did sit utterly mesmerised for the best part of an hour, spellbound by the spectacle on the stage and cheerfully waving their WNO flags as the performance reached its crescendo to ‘Libiamo ne’ lieti calici’ from La Traviata. Maybe there’s hope for them yet.
Opera Play Live: A Space Spectacular is on tour as part of the WNO’s Autumn season, until November 25th. Further information is available via the WNO site.