Ulysses & the Wooden Horse – 1987
4th Dec 1987
Unsung heroes of a mini-opera
Present stars are helping future ones in a family show with a difference
Nicholas Kraemer is standing on a pew in a large cold church in Notting Hill, with his brother Timothy’s score for his new children’s opera, Ulysses and the Wooden Horse, resting on the lectern in front of him. Forty children, mostly girls, between the ages of nine and 16 are ranged over the altar steps, singing.
“Very feeble – come on now,” says the conductor. They start again, singing “Feel the power of the horse”, but Nicholas interrupts, patiently. “You’re a whole beat out. I can’t go One Two on the night.”
In different corners of the church various adults coach groups of children on movements, exits, entrances, and the words of a song. Meanwhile in the vestry, with a bottle of wine and plastic cups to cheer them on, mothers are sorting, sewing and measuring costumes.
This is the W11 Children’s Opera Group, preparing for its 17th production. It is put on – with sponsorship – to an extraordinarily high standard, demanding immensely hard work from enthusiastic amateurs (100 local children and their parents) and from the professionals who direct them.
Nicholas Kraemer, artistic director of the London Bach Orchestra and the Irish Chamber Orchestra and principal conductor of Divertimenti, is the music director; the stage director is Susanna Best, assistant director to the English Shakespeare Company, and the designer is Claire Lyth, currently designing Candida for the West End and Hamlet for Liverpool.
The organization starts in July at a fund-raising garden party and auditions take place early in September. Only one week before opening the opera is performed as a whole. “Everyone forgets everything they’ve done,” sighs Best, “and one thinks it will never be right.” For the professionals this is a strictly uncommercial project. They do it because they believe in the creative educational experience, and because they love it. Working with children like this is an enormous challenge.
“Children need a lot of rhythm and strong tunes,” says Timothy Kraemer, a cellist, whose musical interests span baroque and jazz and rock – all of which he uses in the score. For the composer, this is a good shop window, as publishers, agents and school music teachers are regular W11 Children’s Opera-goers.
At 15, Adam Suschitsky is the oldest boy taking part in the opera. With four years’ experience behind him, he says he likes this year’s music best of all. “The catchy tunes and use of puns make the music and words easy to memorize,” he says.
Jenny Cavanaugh is 16, and has had a solo part almost every year. This year she plays Helen of Troy. “Each year I love it even more,” she says. “It’s hard work, and it teaches you a lot – not just the kind of things you learn at school.” At eight, Hannah Shuckburgh is the youngest member of the cast: “It’s very exciting,” she says.
It was Serena Hughes, a piano teacher and viola player, who founded the opera in 1971, with Nicholas Kraemer. After an absence Hughes is now back – as rehearsal pianist. “Over the years it’s kept its atmosphere, though it’s slightly less villagey now. There are far more parents involved, and it’s all more streamlined.” Productions may have become more lavish and more ambitions, “but we have kept to legends because they have a timeless element.”