Some Recollections of W11 Children’s Opera
Nicholas Kraemer 1983
I used to conduct a small orchestra of children aged 8-14 which met in Chris Ramsey’s home in Clarendon Road, and which Serena Hughes organized along with Felicity and Royd Barker and countless others. After a few rehearsals, Serena confided to me that she had always wanted to put on Benjamin Britten’s Noyes Fludde and would I conduct it?
I had done very little conducting in those days but said I would — not realising quite what a complicated piece geographically it was to conduct. One quickly became aware of how difficult communicating a beat to the back of a church could be (the Kyries of the animals marching up the aisle two-by-two would always start almost half a beat behind). The most astonishing thing about The Fludde was the organisation.
Here was a company of 100 or so children, plus set builders, costume makers (wonderful masks they were too), children’s orchestra, professional musicians, producer, designer etc etc… all without having to make one phone call — that was a luxury for me and a large phone bill for Serena.
The performances were leisurely: some compared them most favourably with Aldeburgh’s great tradition. Flushed with success we could not wait to do another opera, so we commissioned Christopher Bowers Broadbent who played the organ in Noyes Fludde to write one. This was the Pied Piper of Hamlyn which we rehearsed in the gardens of St James’ Church as it was summer and performed in Holland Park Open Air Theatre. After that we decided that two operas in one year was excessive, so the decision was taken to commission John Gardner to write one for Christmas 1973.
This was Bel and the Dragon the apocryphal story of Daniel. I remember a journey to London Zoo at 7:00 am to record 90 seconds of lion-roar. When it came to that moment in the opera our lions sounded far more terrifying than they looked. By this time we had more children in the group than we could properly cope with – but as always a solution was found. Our dragon had approximately 40 tiny pattering feet.
It was about this time that most schools were putting on Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and as we had no composer to turn to, we opted for it the following year, in the full West End version, rock band and all. This introduced electric guitars and rock percussion to West 11 Opera which pushed the decibels up to a level hitherto unknown in the church. Fears of drowning the singing were expressed passionately but when it came to it the children, unbelievably, found even more power in their lungs.
The bass guitarist in A Girl and the Unicorn was Daryl Runswick who was asked to write the next one. This was entirely secular and told 9 stories from various parts of the world.
Dreamtime was our only ethnic opera. In 1980 we had once again run out of composers and decided to do a small scale Nativity piece by Herbert Chapell, already published, called Mak the Sheep Stealer together with Britten’s Ceremony of Carols which Royd Barker conducted. In the latter piece, some of the older children had an opportunity to concentrate on some fairly complex singing without the distraction of production moves.
For the next opera the setting moved to Czechoslovakia. Timothy Kraemer wrote a blood curdling story, Good King Wenceslas, but with effective music.
George Fenton who is nationally famous for the 9 O’Clock news jingle collaborated with Timothy (the librettist this time) in composing Birthday, a story about gang warfare in Bethlehem in the year 0 with the nativity quietly going on in the background. It was this year also that I became involved in the formation of the cousin of the W11 Children’s Opera, The Dublin Children’s Opera. The week after the Birthday performances I went to Dublin to conduct the new group in Good King Wencelas which was an extraordinary déjà vu experience.
In 1976 my brother Timothy who wrote the libretto for Bel was asked to write the music for the next one. He and Peter Dickinson the prolific W11 author chose 9 parables and turned them into Like This Like That. Visually this was an amazing achievement. Costumes and set had always been, and still are, a very strong feature of the opera. The sight of a life size camel dancing up the aisle provoked spontaneous applause at each performance.
Timothy also wrote the next opera The Adventures of Jonah. For the voice of the whale, we had a very deep bass voice – Harry Edwards — whose Linda had sung Mrs Noah in 1971. This was sung from inside an extremely amiable looking whale. After Jonah, Serena Hughes passed the general administration on to other shoulders. Her sister Corinna and the Barkers took over; they had all been very much in evidence up till then although Serena has remained in touch by playing the viola in all operas since then and this year she has come back as rehearsal pianist, one of her original roles.
For our next opera we moved away from the Bible for the first time since the Pied Piper. Steven Oliver’s A Girl and the Unicorn raised a few eyebrows because of its psychological content. Its main character was a very disturbed little girl. There were, however, some rousing tunes and for the interlude between the acts, he wrote some very touching parables which helped to get past the censors.
This brings us to 1983 and Chris Gunning’s space opera Rainbow Planet. For this we have a “home” production team: myself (I consider W11 to be a second home for me, during the autumn at any rate); Sue Best; Jenny Lazell, who had masterminded so many operas before; and Catharine Marr-Johnson, who has taken on the organisation of the opera for the last four years – her unflagging energy and business-like approach have set the style for the group.
One very important feature of all the operas from Noyes Fludde to the Rainbow Planet is the inclusion of at least one number in which the audience join. This for me says an enormous amount about the spirit in which W1 1 operas are done. From first to last it is an achievement of a community involving so many varied talents in an atmosphere of good will, from the person who bolts the scaffolding together to the composer. It is, I think, unique and there should never be any reason for it to stop.