Entertainment & Arts

Jeffers opera shows the way forward

Image copyright ENO / Stephen Cummiskey

The ENO's first ever children's opera, an adaptation of Oliver Jeffers best-selling picture book, The Way Back Home, opens on Thursday at London's Young Vic.

The BBC's Arts Editor, Will Gompertz, went along to the final dress rehearsal to see the show and hear the opinion of its young audience.

The show doesn't start with a grand stage entrance or a loud bang of the drum from the orchestra pit, but with the conductor making his way through the auditorium to the podium.

This is normally an unremarkable event in opera, but this isn't your standard opera. It's a custom-designed production made specifically for, and with, primary school-aged children.

And if they decreed that the conductor was to wear a star-covered onesie and huge, bright orange clown wig throughout the show, that's what would happen.

With the tone thus set by the maestro, without recourse to his musicians, the house fell silent; the fire-curtain exited stage left and right, and the orchestra struck up. Showtime.

Image copyright ENO / Stephen Cummiskey

The production opens with the only element of the opera that is not wholly faithful to Jeffers's famous children's book. Four Gizmos - also dressed in orange clown wigs - introduce themselves to the young audience of 5-8 year-olds.

The Gizmos' job is to help with bits of narration, add a little dynamism to the on-stage activity, and use whatever comes to hand to for sound effects.

Once they have departed to the wings, the real action beings.

There's the penguin - the kids LOVE him - the little boy and the Martian.

Image copyright ENO / Stephen Cummiskey

The story unfolds scene-by-scene as it does page-by-page in the book. Such adherence to source material is not director Katie Mitchell's typical approach, but that's what her young co-creators told her would work best, so that's what she did.

And it does work. The show cracks along, making its forty-minute runtime feel a little short.

The children sat still and paid attention throughout, behaving like any adult audience would except they didn't cough, fidget or check their mobile phones.

In fact, they were enthralled. Which was slightly surprising because composer Joanna Lee has not sugared the opera pill. The piece is pretty much sung-though in formal operatic style, without any obviously catchy melodies to try and woo the audience.

The ENO's first children's opera is absolutely not another Matilda The Musical-type production full of catchy numbers. It is opera.

Talking to some of the young audience members after the show (admittedly with a camera pointing in their faces, which always elicits a slightly hedged response), they appeared to be genuinely won over.

Image copyright ENO / Stephen Cummiskey

Would they rather see it again or watch the TV, I asked? See it again they said, without a beat. Two of the five had already decided they wanted to be opera singers.

There was something else about the audience that's worth a mention. It was drawn largely from two London primary schools, and reflected the multi-cultural nature of the capital's population.

These were children from a variety of backgrounds, social and ethnic, who happily enjoyed a shared experience that they will talk about in the playground today and again - maybe in a café in twenty years time.

The arts are forever being spoken about in terms of their economic impact or ability to regenerate a run-down district, but rarely as a tool for social cohesion.

In an age of globalisation, mass migration and open borders, the arts can play an important role in helping people to share ideas and fears and experiences. In which regard this production is showing the way.

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