Bel and the Dragon – 1973
St. James, Notting Hill, London W11
January 3rd-10th 1974
Sunbursts of Children’s Energy
There is little to encourage composers to venture into the field of professional opera, though many make the attempt. Opera-goers are generally conservatives, happy to have the same 10 or 20 works served up over and over again, and they stay away in numbers when the management try to tempt them with a contemporary new work. Amateur societies offer few opportunities; apart from a few brave university groups, most of the operatic societies stick to Gilbert and Sullivan musicals (Ancient and Modern) and a few of the popular classics, with Faust and Fledermaus still leading the way. But children’s operas are rather different. Here, there is no established repertoire and few traditions that have to be respected. Every school, every group, is a little universe of its own, with its own laws and customs; each, ideally, needs its own sort of opera-often a sort of opera which doesn’t even exist.
Children, devoted teachers declare, can do anything if they are allowed to and encouraged in the right way. This view is borne out by developments over the last 20 years. Today, there are schools that will put on The Magic Flute or The Bartered Bride and think nothing of it; the most moving Alceste I’ve ever seen was at a comprehensive at Hemel Hempstead. There are home-produced operas, sometimes written by the children themselves, and avant-garde pieces of music-theatre developed from improvisation work. Not all are masterpieces; but they are worth all the more because they have grown out of their environment and serve a precise need at a particular moment.
At the tail end of the Romantic era, no serious composer would have dreamt of wasting his time writing extended children’s works. But the 1920s brought a happy change. Hindeminth, Bartok, Weill, Copland and Holst all took a deep interest in the music of childhood-which perhaps offered an escape from the increasingly forbidding worlds of contemporary music and of politics.
Then came Britten, who saw further into the child’s mind than almost any other compose. In Let’s Make an Opera and Noye’s Fludde, he created works which were inspiring for the usual audiences as well as for children; not scaled-down adult operas, but opera which can be sensibly performed by only children. After Noye’s Fludde, the deluge. All sorts of professional composers have entered the field, including Malcolm Williamson with his Instant Operas (works lasting 10 or 15 minutes that can be put on by a group of children after a normal morning’s work), Richard Rodney Bennett and Gordon Crosse (whose latest children’s opera is soon to be put on by the Finchley Children’s Group).
I was surprise to find that John Gardner, whose Bel and the Dragon I saw at St James’s Norlands Church, W11, on December 15, had not written a children’s opera before; for he has worked with amateurs and children for many years at Morley College and St Paul’s Girls’ School, and possesses to a high degree the “gift to be simple”. He has described himself, too modestly, as a “tunesmith”. If you’ve heard his delightful carol When Christ was born of Mary free this Christmas you’ll see the point of the remark; but he can also create large and continuous musical structures as well as tunes, and has wide knowledge of the operatic field (for many years he was a repetiteur at Covent Garden, and his Moon and Sixpence had a striking success when Sadler’s Wells produced it in the 1950s). He is also a composer of huge contrapuntal skill, and a great admirer of the ingenious Russian theorist, Taneiev.
Near the end of Bel, there is an impressive, many-parted hymn-setting, in which the audience joins, full of canons and imitations. Somehow it sounds familiar-and sure enough, it turns out to be derived from Non Nobis Domine, a famous William Byrd canon. Going back over the score, it turns out that Non Nobis is a sort of leading motif, from which the opera begins and which crops up in many disguises. But the references are brought in so easily and naturally that they could well pass unnoticed. Gardner wears his learning as lightly as Haydn did in the final fugues of the Op. 20 quartets. His contrapuntal movements flow as smoothly as the catchy show-numbers, whose tunes the children will probably remember with pleasure for the rest of their lives.
The W11 Children’s Opera Group started life two years ago with a production of Noye’s Fludde. Bel and the Dragon is a work on the same scale, and is presented in rather the same way, using the whole church as an acting area. The dragon, powered by 42 children at the last count, advances up the centre aisle; at the back of the stage the parents have built a four-storey tower, and the supporting chorus sing from its windows. “Why couldn’t they be called Soldiers, not semi-chorus?” someone asked. A valid point, since the first thing to remember in children’s opera is that everyone must be made to feel important and wanted. Nicholas Kraemer, the conductor, says that his main aim is to make the rehearsals seem as unlike school as possible-not by lowering standards, but by spreading enthusiasm and understanding, so that everyone is pleased to be doing what they are doing and shouldering their own little piece of responsibility.
That was how it looked when I went along to a rehearsal four days before the first night. The dragon had grown larger and longer as rehearsals went on-everyone wanted to be in it. The semi-chorus were eager to risk vertigo on the top floor of the tower (as good as the top bunk in a sleeper). The dragon split in half on its way up the aisle. “It won’t be like this on the night,” everyone told me. I said I was sure of it, knowing that the final gradient from confusion to something like organisation is steeper in the case of children’s operas than in professional productions. Noise and enthusiasm everywhere-very different from the smooth efficiency of professional set-builders and costumiers. It was like a medieval church interior, with people busily getting on with their jobs in every available space; hammering, trying on head-dresses, teaching the back legs of the camel to follow the front legs round a difficult corner. Some enthusiast with a passion for fine work had painted cacti on the risers of all the stage steps-a real labour of love, like the fine stone-carving high up in the dark roofs of churches where it will never be clearly seen.
By December 15 the many elements had come together to add up to a genuine and most original sort of opera. The libretto (by Timothy Kraemer, member of the pop group Esperanto, and a brother of the conductor) follows the Apocrypha closely. Daniel exposes the priests who have been eating the food prepared for the god Bel, spreading ash so that their footprints can be seen the next day. He explodes the dragon worshipped by the Babylonians with a meal of pitch, fat and hair (the mixture is prepared by an enormous pantomime cook-the counter-tenor John Angelo Messana in drag). He is cast into the lion’s den, where he is visited by the prophet Habukkuk bearing a bowl of soup, placates the lions, and finally persuades Cyrus (not Darius in this version) to abandon his false gods.
An on-the-spot, mainly professional orchestra with plenty of percussion gave a sense of stability and confidence to the singers. The audience’s enthusiasm reacted back on the performers, (“giving back heat for heat,” as Henry Irving once said); and the whole performance lifted and took wing. The young Daniel and Cyrus sang out in the big church as strongly as they knew how-too strongly for the good of their voices, most choirmasters would have said; but children are resilient, and these two might have answered that they would rather be Daniel and Cyrus for four memorable performances than masquerade as perfect little musical instruments. The dragon advanced up the aisle in one piece, and exploded punctually after its disgusting meal.
Let’s get Daniel’s autograph / He’s a man you’ll always love
sang the cast, every one passionately and totally involved in the music and in Daniel’s triumphs and reverses.
And so, on to the last hymn, this time with a large and loudly-singing audience, and a feeling that we were all properly celebrating something or other. Not, I think, the Glory of God, in this really very secular opera. Possible, a sense of delight in communal achievement, and the creation of a complete, organic, work of art (though the word sounds rather pretentious in the context); and a realisation of the vital need for such sunbursts of energy, enthusiasm and bright, living sounds in the middle of the cold, troubled December of 1973.
John Gardner’s new opera Bel and the Dragon, specially written for the W11 Children’s Opera group, tells further adventures of Daniel: how he detected the priests who stole food from the temple by scattering ashes so that their footprints were found the next day; how he exploded the dragon worshipped by the Babylonians, feeding it on pitch, hair, and fat (cooked by the counter-tenor John Angleo Messana in drag); and how he was succoured in the lion’s den by the prophet Habakkuk. The libretto is by Timothy Kraemer, a member of the pop group Esperanto, whose plain and straightforward story-telling is just right for this group of 120 children between the ages of five and 17.
The green dragon, advancing down the aisle on 84 short legs in various shades of black — plimsolls, boots, and stockings — provide the spectacular centre-piece to the opera, charmingly and appropriately staged by Gillian Chambers. Costumes, sets and, for once, lighting had been clearly thought out and all fitted together to form a single musical-dramatic-visual whole.
John Gardner’s score is full of good tunes in his own strongly individual manner, some solemn and made to be counterpointed, some racy, often syncopated and jazzy. A mainly professional orchestra with a strong percussion section acted as steadying influence and stimulant to the children, who sang with tremendous drive and enthusiasm, swept along by Gardner’s exciting and vital music.
The last hymn, involving the whole audience, was a particularly fine piece of Echt Gardner, full of canons and descants entering at unexpected places and intervals. In spite of lost words, the gist of the story is made clear in action, as in so many of the best children’s operas, while the production makes the very best of the many opportunities offered in this gay and inventive piece.