Non-stop music

How do you kiss a pig? The informal “focus group” of eight-year-olds watching the Young Vic’s Christmas show in rehearsal really needed to know the answer. John Fulljames, directing The Enchanted Pig, Jonathan Dove’s new musical-cum-opera, says later that it was a rather good question, what with deciding exactly how the snout might get in the way of the lips etc. The person for whom this is a truly urgent matter is Princess Flora (played by Royal Academy student Caryl Hughes) who finds herself rather unfairly married to a hairy boar after she and her sisters have disobeyed their father and consulted the Book of Fate. But that’s fairy tales for you.

Against all the odds, Flora falls in love with the Pig from the North and (guess what) he’s revealed to be an enchanted handsome prince. But the prince has to remain a pig by day and when Flora attempts to free him he is - literally - whisked away by a witch who has ear-marked him for her spoilt daughter. Flora must undertake a perilous journey to win her husband back.

So far so charming. But opera for primary children? No one wants to label the piece as such - in fact the cast consists of an equal mix of opera singers and musical theatre actors - but it is sung through, with no spoken dialogue. Dove says, “If the music doesn’t stop, the whole thing is heightened and you enter a different imaginative world”.

The love duet between Flora and Pig proves this beyond doubt as soprano Hughes and baritone Rodney Clarke take fairy tale theatre into emotional realms few children will have experienced. Nevertheless, parents of young theatregoers need not fear that the show will be too demanding: there are some rollicking funny bits too, a few of the naughty words - wee, poo and fart - that children find hilarious, fabulous flying and more than a sprinkling of magic.

What about intelligibility? Fulljames is pretty confident: “It’s about technique; once the thoughts are clear, the diction is clear. And there is a fabulous acoustic in the Young Vic now: live enough for music and dry enough for text. The band is just six players - nothing electronic or amplified - and, of course, the audience is so close.”

Successful collaboration

Fulljames’ Opera Group has already collaborated successfully with the Young Vic and is now officially an associate company. David Lan, the theatre’s artistic director, says: “Just as we have always encouraged young directors, we want to do the same for young companies”. The Opera Group’s inspiring community piece, Tobias and the Angel (with libretto by Lan) opened the stunningly refurbished Young Vic in October. Two years earlier, when the production was first seen, Lan thought that “some more of this magic” might make a fitting addition to the Young Vic’s long list of outstanding children’s shows, from Grimm Tales to Tintin.

Dove and librettist Alasdair Middleton began searching anthologies and eventually settled on an unusual Romanian folktale, one from the “animal-groom cycle” (according to psychologist Bruno Bettelheim’s categorisation). Beauty and the Beast is a more familiar example of this kind of rites-of-passage story in which a girl’s fear of sexuality is profitably faced. This time our heroine learns the rather more sophisticated lesson that marriage might be more complicated than first love.

Middleton says, “It’s important to be funny - and a bit naughty.” His libretto includes witty references to a number of other tales; the King warns his daughters: “If elves should do the housework/ It’s only as a ploy/ And always, girls, remember -/ A spindle’s not a toy”. The characters all have distinct, often funny personalities. And the devoted but comically bickering couple, the North Wind and his wife, are, Middleton announces, “based on my parents, who live in the North”. These two are played by seasoned operatic pros, Nuala Willis and John Rawnsley.

The music helps to tell the story. Listen for the pig sounds from the trombone, not to mention Clarke’s deep, dark baritone, a match for his rugby-player figure: “We are definitely not aiming for a sweet pink piglet” he confirms. Indeed not. An imposing boar with a taste for rolling in smelly mud, Clarke’s Pig is today sporting splendid trotter-like shoes such as - he says - Japanese builders find useful when climbing ladders. Design solutions (they are Dick Bird’s province here) can, it seems, come from unexpected quarters.

Eclectic ensemble

Even in straight opera, Dove always chooses to work with good actors (Nuala Willis is a long-standing favourite, especially for comedy) but, in this case, acting skills are essential. “The music is in some ways simpler. It requires more of the performer. Just singing the notes will not be enough”. Casting took Dove and Fulljames six to eight months, longer than ever before. Not only do the actors have to sing and the singers to move well (and possibly fly), they all had to gel into an ensemble. Everyone except Hughes plays several parts and together they make up the storytelling chorus.

Exponents of the different disciplines seem to be enjoying discovering other methods, although Delroy Atkins on (the King of the West and the Sun) felt a bit intimidated at first: “They pick up a score and read it like a newspaper! I’m saying - ‘Can I have my note please?’”. But he and Akiya Henry (Day) perform a very physical number outside the repertoire of opera singers.

Caryl Hughes says of all the musical theatre actors (Kate Chapman and Joshua Dallas as well as Henry and Atkinson): “They are amazing. They have such energy. They go and go, whereas I have to rest my voice.” She and Clarke are allowed some respite as “alternates” Anna Dennis and Byron Watson (two more impressive acting opera singers) cover some performances, but the principals still sing six a week. North-Walian Hughes, described by Dove as “intense and with a wildness about her”, is scarcely off-stage. She may be doing very little talking over the next few months.

So here is an innovative and surprising take on a folktale, but it is one nevertheless. Why do we need to return to them every Christmas? David Lan (a one-time anthropologist) says: “Christmas is a time for going back to the source of our strength, love, bringing the family together, but there is a paradox as it often leads to terrible rows. These stories are analagous. There is a darkness, a brutality, but we want peace to be restored. And then the cycle begins again.”

For Dove, “When music is part of the story from the beginning, anything could happen. Pigs, indeed, might fly.”

The Enchanted Pig receives its world premiere on 14 December 2006 (previews from 1 December) and continues until 27 January 2007.