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New Opera for Young People — Creating a Repertoire
Stephen McNeff, composer
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EducationLink6/16/2008

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Most composers write music for young people at some point, and authors and poets also write for that audience, yet the Cornish poet Charles Causley said there was no such thing as "children's" poetry. Writer Philip Pullman, who came to prominence through the Whitbread Prize, startled critics as a "children's" author succeeding in an adult world. Pullman barely recognizes that there is a divide — "Children deserve the best," he says.

Is there an equivalent in music and opera? Most orchestras do family concerts but they are often diluted versions of "grownup" music. This is not the orchestras' fault; there's just not that much to choose from. Children's exposure to orchestral music is limited. For many, the only time they will hear an orchestra is on the soundtrack of a movie.

Despite this limited introduction to "classical" music, there are performances of opera for kids, but many of them share the same problems as concert music. First, there are the cut-down versions of the classics. The Magic Flute is a great opera, but it has undergone so many "re-versionings" that it is sometimes hard to tell where Mozart ends and a new interpretation begins. However, this genre can have value in introducing children to opera and, depending on how well it is done, is far preferable to the "schools matinee." Too often this is an occasion when one of the great works is performed in an auditorium packed with noisy, ill-prepared pupils and which -- in my experience anyway -- has been a miserable event for all involved.

As you might expect from a composer, I'm much more in favor of operas written specifically for young people, but the examples of regular repertoire are limited. In Europe, frequently performed works include Britten's Noyes Fludde and Let's Make an Opera (The Little Sweep), Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors and Ravel's L'enfant et les sortilèges. (I am generally talking about operas that are for young people to listen to, though not excluding opera in which they can also participate.)

The established works, though, have a limited appeal to modern audiences. Britten's Noyes Fludde for instance, although still much performed, has little to offer urban kids. The assumption that the audience will know (or learn) the participatory hymns is not something that could be got away with in inner London. Similarly, Amahl and the Night Visitors, despite it origins as a TV opera, betrays its time and age for young people more used to a fast-paced, multimedia environment.

Should we accept that opera is limited in its social and generational reach? This is not the case in literature, where contemporary writing for young people is thriving. It was with this in mind that I became involved in an initiative to create operas for children that reflected the tastes of modern audiences.

For many years, I had been associated with the Unicorn Theatre for Children, the U.K.'s oldest theater for young people. I had written scores of all kinds and had an idea of how far one could go musically; much further than normally assumed. Artistic Director Tony Graham understood my classical background and suggested that we explore the world of opera and music-theater for children. With the collaboration of London's Philharmonia Orchestra, we embarked on what was to become one of the most critically successful family operas of recent years in London, based on Philip Pullman's short novel, Clockwork.

We were fortunate in having playwright David Wood as librettist, and Philip Pullman took a lively interest. We were aware that Philip would gather attention for the new opera and it was important for the opera to be based on a solid literary foundation with a libretto by a recognized writer.

After a short tour, Clockwork sold out its three week run at the Royal Opera House (ROH) Linbury Theatre — the 350 seat auditorium designed for chamber works. The audiences were a mix of students and the general public, many of the children were not only attending an opera for the first time, but in some cases live theater of any kind. With the help of special sponsorship, we targeted schools in deprived areas of inner London. Clockwork struck the right chord — dramatically and musically. Apart from any intrinsic operatic qualities, this was due to associated educational projects.

Working with an established children's theater allowed the opera to take advantage of established approaches and existing resources in young people's theater. Familiarity with the process was perhaps was one of the reasons why the ROH asked me to work with them to create another new opera for young people and their families: Gentle Giant, which recently completed its second sold-out tour and run at the ROH. Paul Reeve, director of education and access at the ROH, knew that Clockwork had resonated with its audience because of its contemporary nature, its use of modern theater techniques and, significantly, its refusal to compromise or speak down to an audience. Similarly, Gentle Giant is based on a short book by U.K. Children's Laureate Michael Morpurgo. The libretto is by Mike Kenny, an award-winning dramatist whose economic style blended perfectly.

The ROH brief was specific: a small cast and orchestra, so the work could tour practically anywhere, but still be a "grand" enough opera to do what opera does best — lift emotions and ideas beyond those of speech alone. Gentle Giant is the story of an outcast who is eventually accepted for the goodness in him; a modern retelling of the Beauty and the Beast story. The education team workshopped the story, made masks and drawings, and also taught sections of the music which had been specially written to be easily sung by the audience. We were delighted when they joined in the bits they knew in a joyfully uninhibited way.

Apart from the children's reactions, the greatest compliment I had at the end of the run of Gentle Giant was from the ROH's producer. When asked what was happening to the sets and costumes she said, "They are going into storage! This one is definitely coming back again… and again!!" I hope I have created a piece of new repertoire.

Some Guidelines
These guidelines are obviously subjective, based on my experience. However, for companies wishing to take the plunge and commission new work, they are indicators of ways to create opera that will work for kids.
  • Contemporary Relevance
    The story does not have to be modern, but there has to be some understanding that we are in the first decade of the 21st century, in a world where media is a fast-paced experience, which children grasp early.

  • Accessible versus Non-Accessible Music
    It is impossible to legislate for either (assuming that we could agree on a definition), but the music has to be written by a composer who understands the subtle balance between fulfilling expectations and making demands.

  • Don't Patronize
    Nothing turns off kids quicker than patronizing them. I am always surprised, and delighted, to discover how far one can go both musically and dramatically. Don't make assumptions about what kids can deal with and aim high!

  • Casting that Appeals
    If there are children's parts in the opera (and assuming you are not casting children in the role) go to great lengths to make sure they can act as children — making sure that directors and casting departments have a r
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    About the Author: Composer Stephen McNeff studied composition at the Royal Academy of Music and conducted post-graduate research at the University of Exeter. He has composed opera, music theater and scores for drama in the U.K., the U.S. and Canada. He was composer-in-residence at The Banff Centre, worked with Comus Music Theatre and the Canadian Opera Company, and the Royal Opera House in the U.K., among other organizations. His music for children is widely played and broadcast, most recently by the BBC Concert orchestra on Radio 3.
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