Opera for Babies

This is one of the most bonkers but adorable ideas I’ve heard, but the interview with producer Phelim McDermott with Stuart Maconi on 6 music actually makes a lot of sense, especially within the realm of the Manchester International Festival which ended Sunday. McDermot was initially sceptical, fearing the babies would either be bored or be disruptive, but as the father of a toddler, he was delighted by the success. The MIF is as much about high art as it is with encouraging people to try new forms, and especially about community engagement, so the opera BambinO ticks a lot of those boxes. Of course it is tailored to suit such a young audience, i.e. the under 2’s and their parents, so lasts a mere 40 minutes, with tickets priced accordingly. It also went on tour, visiting some of the most deprived towns in the region. It was also on a suitable small scale, with 2 singers and 2 multi-instrumentalists, with plenty of soft furnishings for the babies to feel at ease. This is from Fiona Maddocks in Sunday’s Observer:

For imagination and enchantment, this enterprise deserves every rosette going. It worked, contrary to expectation… on so many levels it’s hard to ease them apart. …

It’s notated but with some improvisation – essential given the unpredictable nature of the audience’s possible response. The story is mostly wordless, with a few bits of Italian for authenticity. Ucellina … finds a golden egg, which grows and hatches. Out comes a very big chick, Pulcino. Eventually others hatch. the end…

The level of concentration was astonishing. Brief outbursts aside, the babies watched, listened, on and off … Eugene-in-his vest sat transfixed, a wise, observant expression on his face. One boy, perched on hid father’s shoulders, beat out rhythms with impressive accuracy, using Dad’s head as a drum. Others showed more theatrical instincts, romping on the cushions and joining in with the performers. Babies were encouraged to do whatever they wished, but there was no urging, no “now, children”, no patronising. … A lovely final duet about flying high in the sky proved, apart from anything, an effective lullaby for those whose postprandial sleep had been interrupted.

There was another element, crucial in Rochdale in particular, a town suffering some of the worst deprivation in Britain, with above average numbers of asylum seekers and refugees, low employment and the horrors of a child abuse scandal. It is, too, on the lowest percentile nationally of cultural engagement. “Rochdale needs every joyful distraction it can get” Tom Besford, arts and heritage manager at Link4Life, told me. Eighty percent of tickets – £5 each – were restricted to people with Rochdale postcodes. for most, word had spread via MIF (The show has toured other towns including Oldham and Wigan).

The previous day, however, Besford and his team, working with Rochdale library services had enabled an entirely different and diverse audience, many socially isolated or with poor English, to attend fe of charge, transport provided. One mother had never been to a civic centre, let alone a theatre and put a bow tie on her baby, not in irony but believing it was obligatory opera etiquette… a toddler with impaired vision had been taken by the musicians in advance of the show, round the instruments and props so that by touching them he would know what was happening. “And he did,” Besford said. “He was laughing, waving, I’ll never forget it.”

The pay-off for an initiative like this is incalculable. If nothing else, children will comprehend that sounds – music – are made physically, y people and instruments, rather than coming inly from a box or an earplug. Every adult present will have had a new experience, not least the mum fromStockport who had been to opera “proper” but hated it. For a fe it was just a chance to get out of the house and meet people. Rarely has innocent pleasure felt so vital. BravO Scottish Opera Bambino is at the Edinburgh fringe next month, Glasgow in October.

I wish I was young enough to see it!

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