"That was an odd way to introduce children to opera…" Ear-wigging as I left the Linbury last week after the press night of Julian Philips' new opera, How the Whale Became (and other tales), commissioned by The Royal Opera with Christmas in mind, this was one of many similar comments I heard – admittedly from adults, at the close of what was a slightly-perplexing evening.
Getting kids tuned in to opera at an early age, this new work was pitched at five year olds upwards, is to be commended, and whilst there were occasional flashes of inspiration in Philip's score and Edward Kemp's libretto based on Ted Hughes' short stories, they were too few and far between especially in what seemed like a very long evening. The first act lasted nearly an hour, the second just over forty minutes, so kudos to the many children in the audience who were a lot less fidgety than many of the grown-ups present.
There were problems with diction (one might suggest that amplification would have helped on this occasion), and Philips' musical style was at times cacophonous – the musical lines instantly forgettable and as angular as anything you might find in Birtwistle. With accompaniment from a honky-tonk piano, percussive bin lids and the like, with some ruminating woodwinds thrown in for good measure, and a setting that was brilliantly evocative as a kind of Garden of Eden meets Homebase, (thanks to designer Tom Scutt) at times I thought that if a group of singers were to decamp to their local garden centre and attempt a scratch performance of Wozzeck, then this is what it would be like.
Still, there were some terrific performances from Fflur Wyn, Donna Leonard, Andrew Dickinson, James McOran-Campbell and Njabulo Madlala who threw themselves into their multiple roles with verve and conviction whilst director Natalie Abrahami's attempts to clarify what was frequently a confusing narrative more often than not succeeded.
I'm a great believer in creating new works for the operatic stage but I couldn't help but feel that a staging of Britten's The Little Sweep (Let's Make an Opera), would have been a more fitting way of introducing the weird and wonderful world of opera to an eager and appreciative bunch of kids, and it would have been a nice tie in for Britten's 100th birthday as well.