Friday 22 April 2011

ETO's Fantastic Mr Fox, or The Vexed Question of Opera for Children

Normally when I write a review for this site it is a comparatively straightforward prospect. With operas I judge the performance in question from my perspective as an almost 33 year old opera fanatic who has been attending performances regularly for going on for 20 years. It would be easy enough to write a review along these lines of last night's performance which, from that narrow perspective, did nothing for me. However, I am clearly not the target audience which seems at least to some degree (which we'll come back to in a moment) to be children, most of whom will probably not have been to an opera before. It therefore seems to me that the issue that is really raised by this show is the vexed question of opera for children – what we intend by this idea, and how we can best realise it. This I have tried to address, though I have found it in practice impossible to completely eradicate my normal perspective.

Before coming to the wider question, the intentions of the show need to be identified. The ETO website actually doesn't refer to it as a children's opera but rather as “a new family opera.” They go on to stress though that it is “Perfect for seasoned opera goers and first-timers alike.” The programme note, by librettist Donald Sturrock, argues along similar lines, quoting the General Director of LA Opera, the late Peter Hemmings, who commissioned the work in the 1990s, as saying “There must be something for parents to enjoy too.” There is a slight implication here that you have to be in a family group to enjoy this and the single opera goer should therefore steer well clear.

Some description of the show is now necessary, and this is where it becomes especially difficult to avoid judgement (in my capacity as solo nearly 33 year old opera goer). The show is a reasonably faithful adaptation of Dahl's book with the main change being the addition of some new characters – Miss Hedgehog, Porcupine, Agnes the Digger and Rita the Rat. The set design is inventive – although the main exit from the foxhole seems a bit superfluous – and achieves a lot through a bit of judicious colour and light. The subtitles do a mixed job of putting up about half the sung text, and scenic descriptions (I should have thought most even quite small children would readily grasp where we were in each scene but be that as it may).

The problem is to my mind very much with the music and libretto – and this is where we move into the wider question of what we mean by children's opera. Composer and librettist have made the decision here to include roles for amateur choruses of children (as the foxcubs and the trees) who are being supplied by local schools. That obviously necessitates simplification of music and text. Should that simplification of text (to the music I shall return) be carried over into the rest of the piece? My view would be that if you're going to go down that route then you are really creating a piece for performance in school concerts not for the wider public. Music is a more subjective question and I find it quite impossible not to insert a degree of personal judgement here which also embraces some aspects of the performance. The diction of too many members of the professional cast is seriously at fault here such that what text was not on the screens was often incomprehensible (at least from my seat in the Circle). Picker's music didn't for me add anything to the theatrical experience. The only exception was Catrine Kirkman's (Miss Hedgehog) beautiful little aria about the fear of being passed by by love. Kirkman is the standout performance in this show, her diction is a model for the rest and she embues life into the role where most of the rest are mere caricatures. One other oddity in the music has to be observed. This is the use of klezmer themes for Rita the Rat's main number. Maybe it was just me but I found something very unsettling about this, especially when Rita (still to the same theme) spent most of the last scene drunk. The other big problem performance wise, for me, was Nicholas Merryweather's Fox. The text emphasises that he should be Fantastic. He's meant to be the brains behind the operation, the figure to whom everybody else looks for instructions. Merryweather's diction was pretty atrocious and unfortunately I was just never convinced that anybody else would look to him for instructions.

It's very hard to tell what the reaction of the children in the audience was to the show – the child performers received deservedly loud and long applause, and the trio of evil farmers were booed at the curtain which implies some measure of engagement but there was little audible reaction to most of the rest of it.

Points of comparison with other operas for young people are difficult. The only one I could immediately think of that I've seen is Jonathan Dove's Pinnochio which musically and textually is, to my mind, far superior, though the work as a whole is overlong. I suspect the obvious comparison would be with Britten's The Little Sweep. This is an opera specifically written for children, and I haven't heard the music since I performed in it probably about 20 years ago. I would quite like having sat through this to see it again and see how it compares. One thing I can note is that at least one section of it that I didn't sing remains in my mind to this day (the housekeeper singing bitterly about her poor feet and being dragged “all the way to Snape and back”) whereas I would be hard pushed to recall a single line of last night's text. As a regular adult opera goer, I suspect this suffered in comparison to Janacek's Cunning Little Vixen and Britten's Paul Bunyan whose Trees singing beautful Auden lines are streets ahead of Sturrock and Picker – but this may not be a fair comparison. The other way to go is orchestrally – to Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf and Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. Again the comparison is not exact, but the musical richness is far superior in both those works to my mind than anything Picker comes up with here.

My ultimate feeling about opera for children is I think similar to how I feel about Quaker Meeting for Worship for Children. Among Quakers there is often a question whether you should hold Children's Meetings which are shorter than a normal Meeting for Worship, which include programmed elements – a theme/activities etc. - where a normal meeting would simply involve all present waiting in gathered stillness, with ministry coming if anybody is moved to speak. I have usually felt that such Children's Meetings give a very misleading idea of what Quaker worship is actually like. Similarly, I came out of this feeling that it was going to give a child experiencing opera for the first time a very imperfect idea of what the art form is really like. Alternatively it may in fact be that Tobias Picker and Donald Sturrock have simply written a not very good opera (explaining why until Opera Holland Park revived a reduced version in 2010 it had not been performed since the original LA premiere 13 years ago), and a greater work in itself would reveal these issues to be less problemmatic than they appeared as a consequence of this evening's performance.

These questions do matter very much. Although audiences have been notably younger, at least in the gods at Covent Garden and the Coliseum, there is still a definite age problem for the opera and classical music world. I grew up in an opera loving household, but that is probably not common. Newspaper headlines are constantly announcing reductions in opportunities for the teaching of music in schools, or the opportunity to learn a musical instrument. Given these circumstances, ETO does deserve credit for this exercise in educational outreach and community involvement, for trying to access a new audience. But I cannot get away ultimately from a feeling that this particular attempt was a serious case of talking down to your audience, and a feeling on some level that I would prefer that we tried for Opera for All, not Opera for Families. It might have been an interesting enterprise to take a sample group of children to ETO's Gianni Schicchi (no longer than the first half of Fox and filled with physical comedy and on-stage silliness) and then to Fox and poll them on their reactions.

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