Deep Waters – 2000
27th November 2000
When Londoner Justin Young came down from university four years ago with ambitions to be a stage director, he did not see himself working with children. Yet there he was the other night, on a stage dominating a Holland Park church, rehearsing no less than 85 exuberant children for the world premiere of an imaginative children’s opera to be performed this weekend.
This is a paid professional assignment and he admits to enjoying it so much that for three years he has returned to this venue and these children in between directing assignments that have taken him to the West End and the Edinburgh Festival.
The opera, Deep Waters, is by contemporary composer Cecilia McDowall, also a trained singer, and librettist Christie Dickason, a former theatre director and choreographer whose most recent career is as a novelist. It was specially commissioned by the W11 Children’s Opera, a Notting Hill group with a backbone of supportive mothers which has staged an annual production for the past 29 years, 19 of which have been commissioned new works.
The young performers, who always include a handful of children with special needs – one came to rehearsals with her social worker last year – are aged from 9 to 17. Competition is stiff. 120 children were auditioned in September.
Justin revels in the “broad canvas” on which he can work, with such a large cast and a previously unperformed work. “Most work at this point in my career would normally be studio-based or on a much smaller scale.”
Now 26, and often feeling “about 100” after rehearsals with trendy teenagers, he relies on the 16-year-olds to say what will or won’t work for their age group and incorporates their ideas as much as his own.
“It’s great to be involved in a community project like this and to be doing something for the right reasons,” he says, “not having to worry about whether it’s commercial or what Nicholas de Jongh will say about it!”
“We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to give each child their five minutes of fame,” says librettist Christie Dickason.
Eighty-five children is more than double the number composer Cecilia McDowall has written for before. Deep Waters took her four months to write and after the necessarily solitary nature of this labour she relished the camaraderie and “the cumulative process of the production.”
She bounced several musical ideas off her 15-year-old daughter, Eleanor, a performer in former W11 Opera shows and a stage manager in this one.
Deep Waters is set on the seabed, where four children are tossed overboard during a storm. It has a serious conservation message about over-fishing, which fires many of the children, but lighter touches come with characters like Tina Tuna and the Electric Eels, the Cross Porpoises and the Kray fish brothers.
Apart from the four children, the cast are fish or sea creatures, so costumes, particularly head-dresses, have been a challenge for Liz Dees, budgeting on a “tenner a costume”. This is her first design job after completing a costume degree at the London College of Fashion as a mature student.
“The girls can’t wait to try things on, but the boys give me a look, stick their arms out, and ask warily: ‘What-are-you-putting-me-in?’”