“What do you think an opera is?” I ask my nine-year-old niece before the curtain comes up on Ulla’s Odyssey – OperaUpClose’s latest fringe feat and first ever child-friendly opera. She pauses for a moment, closes her eyes, then opens her mouth wide and warbles like a nightingale on helium, shaking her head furiously to and fro. Then she bursts out laughing.
So it’s not just adults who have preconceptions about opera. But then smiley soprano Sarah Minns comes on stage as Ulla, with her cat Binnacle, and begins to sing directly to the gaggle of children sprawled across giant beanbags in front of the stage. Silence descends. They’re hooked. One child is so absorbed that she forgets she still has her finger in her nose, mid pick.
The opera’s creators – New Zealand composer Anthony Young and Canadian playwright Leanna Brodie – won OperaUpClose’s Flourish competition for new writing in 2014, and were rewarded with a four-week run at Kings Place, in North London. Directed by Valentina Ceschi, the opera follows a young sailor as she attempts to conquer the seas in her boat, The Homer, encountering a plethora of bizarre, barnacled creatures along the way.
And it really is an opera. There are two sopranos, a mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone, a set, costumes, a rather ambiguous plot, wind and piano ensemble, and, most interestingly, a very contemporary, classical-sounding score.
“It’s important to remember that writing for children is not the same as writing down to them,” says Leanna, when I catch up with her and Anthony before the show starts. “You need to prepare children for the ‘real deal’.”
Nonetheless, the most important ingredient in a children’s opera is a good story. “You can’t rely on a young audience to voluntarily engage in the same way that adults do,” says librettist Leanna, who comes across as a storyteller in every way – her face is soft, eyes twinkling and she has a gentle way of talking which could make a shopping list sound like a fairytale. Did she love opera as a child? “I wished that I had been introduced to this glorious art form earlier, in a fun, appealing way,” she explains. “When I was little, I remember my Dad trying to show me La Boheme on the television, broadcast from The Met in New York, and I am ashamed to say that in those 3 hours I requested more bathroom breaks than I’d need in a week. I was bored and he was disappointed. He’s gone now, but perhaps this is my way of making it up to him!
What inspired Leanna to create Ulla’s story? “In classic works like Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz, our heroine is our guide and surrogate in meeting a whole world of fantastical creatures. I thought that was a great template for introducing young people to the sounds of opera singing…it’s already new and unfamiliar territory so why not use it to give voice to goddesses and monsters instead of ordinary folk?”
Is there a shortage of opera for young people? “There certainly is a lack of good operas for children and young audiences,” says composer Anthony. “Most companies who perform for that age group stick to a few works, such as Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, or perform edited versions of standard repertoire like Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Ironically, it’s with a young audience, which has the fewest preconceptions about what they will see or want to see, that I feel there is the greatest potential for new works to be created.”
Watching the performance, I don’t feel as entranced by the story as the younger members of the audience (and £19.50 strikes me as a little steep for tickets for accompanying adults), but I am mesmerised by the opera’s style. Everything bobs and ripples in the blue light on stage. The music trickles beneath the voices like a gentle current, played seamlessly on a collection of woodwind instruments, managed single-handedly by Ruth Whybrow, with music director Alex Beetschen on the piano. Cy-Lops, a floating security buoy played by dry-humoured Edward Hughes, swirls around the stage, and Binnacle the cat’s tail bounces persistently under the hands of nimble puppet master Oskar McCarthy, whose body mimics the cat’s responses. There’s also a perfect balance between speaking and singing; the second an aria begins to outstay its welcome, Ulla’s chatty monologue swoops in.
But don’t let me be the judge. The array of 7-10 year olds in the theatre can’t take their eyes off Sarah Minns’ chummy Ulla, who never loses eye contact with the children, pulling them into her journey. “There’s someone behind you!” one child cries out protectively, as the evil Sylla (glamorous soprano Pamela Hay) creeps up behind the boat in an attempt to eat Binnacle the cat. “You’re really close!” another shouts, when Ulla worries she might not make it home. Most barely move a muscle, except for the moment Ulla throws Brussels sprouts at them and they dive for cover, shouting “that’s disgusting!” or when one girl is so caught up in the music she jumps up and starts dancing like a whirling dervish in front of the stage.
Ulla’s Odyssey continues at Kings Place until 22nd November 2015. For more information and to book, click here.