Game Over – 2003
It is significant that W11 Opera is a commissioning company. Down the years (since 1971 in fact) it has performed many new works by some of the country’s leading composers – many of whom are drawn from the world of the small and large screen, such as Karl Jenkins and George Fenton. The children are not afforded the luxury of the listening to a recording and copying it. They really have to use all their musical abilities to the full. It’s pleasing for an audience to see excellence fostered on the stage with so many people – parents, professionals and volunteers – being so involved in the production. I’m sure they will remember the experience for many years to come.
It is sad therefore that Arts Council does little to support this type of work, regarding it to be the preserve of a privileged few. W11 Opera is far from being elitist, despite taking its name from one of London’s more upmarket postcodes which encompasses Notting Hill. The whole point of the enterprise is to give children of whatever background, the amazing experience of taking part in a professional, staged opera, and it is wonderful that the private sector should fund this opportunity.
This year’s performance was entitled Game Over – a story with music by Guy Dagul about the abuse of video games and their effect on children’s minds. Jane Aspeling’s libretto was cleverly devised within the framework of a video game: for ‘Boot Up’, read Prologue; for ‘Level 4 – Game Over’, read Finale etc. Some of the ensemble pieces worked incredibly well, with ‘Text Me’ a particular audience favourite, written in a solo/chorus structure with verse and refrain.
The individual performers, child stars in the making, sang brilliantly with the various groups of chorus ‘bytes’ ‘termites’, ‘pixies’ ‘soldiers’ and ‘elves’ each having their part to play. (I counted a cast of 86 but there might have been more). The set, costumes and lighting were effective in evoking the lurid fluorescence of a video game, without being over the top. All these elements added up to a thoroughly professional production directed by Jamie Hayes. I look forward with interest to see what W11’s commission for next year will be.
16th December 2003
Notting Hill: The Opera’? Tempted? No, me neither, despite being a long-term resident of the crucially fab spot.
As it turns out, W11 Opera isn’t Hugh Grant and chums rehearsing the manifold marvellousnesses of life in the Royal Borough, but an organisation that for the past 30-odd years has been involving thousands of schoolchildren in (usually) new works of music theatre. It’s largely a pretty posh undertaking, with plenty of little Candidas and Spiros among the cast, but schools from all over the capital are involved, a third of which are not private. Another thing W11 does is to supply a children’s chorus to Opera Holland Park. It is a thoroughly good thing.
This year’s show was a cautionary tale by Guy Dagul and Jane Aspeling about how computer games can do your head in. A group of kiddies, forced into cyberspatial diversions by the prevalence of ‘nutters and weirdos’ on the streets, find themselves playing a game by the plausible Siddy Rom ( an extremely assured performance by Melissa Greenwood), they wind up on the wrong side of the screen, battling psychotic squirrels and piranha fish before getting involved in a full-scale shoot-’em-up strategy game with real casualties.
Plenty of meaty morals to chew on, then, but this hour-long show wasn’t remotely heavy, thanks to Aspeling’s sassy, street-smart libretto, featuring lots of timeless mutual incomprehension between children and their parents (‘We’re not boring!…are we?), as well as a compelling view of the attractions of this virtual world where you can be as tall and popular and beautiful as you aren’t in real life.
Jamie Hayes directed the 85 children with admirable marshalling skills, keeping the story clear and simple and somehow never cluttering the stage; Ali Bell’s costumes, featuring a welcome return of the deeley-bopper, some punkette re-wigged manga escapees and a forest-full of pixies, were unfailingly inventive.
Dagul’s score is a chuggy, soft-rock creature, king of early-Lloyd-Webber-lite, tuneful, expertly paced, really dramatic, and played on two electric organs and bass. Nothing surprising, but full of interesting rhythms, some decent challenges for the singers, and considerately composed to contain solo lines for most of the cast.
Philip Colman kept it all together and produced good choral singing as well. The preachy feel-good finale felt like a cop-out, but the rest of this vaguely doomy show (it reminded me a bit of Hazel O’Connor’s Breaking Glass) was a genuinely impressive effort by a too-little known group.
Rating: Three Stars
At Yuletide, the gap between super-mums and slacker-mums yawns ever more merrily. Super-mums have already ordered the (organic, bronze) turkey, bought presents for their husband’s Godchildren, handcrafted Advent calendars, sent out hundreds of cards, manned a tombola stall at the school fete, sewn a snowflake costume for the Nativity play, hosted a drinks party for all the parents in the class, gift-wrapped a shoe-box full of presents for a needy child, and baked two home-made stollen.
Slacker mums, meanwhile, would feel they’d cracked Christmas if they had managed just one of the above. But I have recently gone undercover among mothers who are in a different league entirely.
I have embedded myself among a band of sisters who, together with a clutch of selfless musicians and directors, somehow manage to slot into the above schedule the trifling matter of yearly staging a semi-professional children’s opera, an event that world-premieres during the frenzied peak of the Christmas-shopping and carol-concert season; an opera that, this year, has no less than 85 schoolchildren on stage who have four costume changes each and has to be rehearsed from scratch (each opera is a special commission and has never been performed before) in the space of just three months.
Now, I hear you ask, what has a slacker like me – who has successfully avoided attending a school Christmas fayre and becoming a class rep for every year of my children’s primary education – got to do with these scary-sounding women and their masochistic determination to get kids into live performance after school and at weekends, when all good children should be slumped, like the rest of their age group, in front of Playstation or the telly?
Well, the story really began last Christmas, when a friend gave us tickets to a production called Stormlight, staged in my local church by the W11 Opera for Young People. For those who are unfamiliar with the resonances of London postcodes, W11 is the plusher end of Notting Hill: there is the odd council block and state school but it would be a stretch to describe this neighbourhood as a sink of deprivation, unless you regard families with maids, Mercedes estates, third homes in Provence, and four children in private school “deprived” in that these families are deprived of normal life as experienced by 99.9 per cent of this country – but we are not here to ruminate on social inequality, but the sheer wonderfulness of that unsung institution, the W11 Opera.
Anyway, the production was called Stormlight, and a very grim affair it was too, all atonal score and gloomy plot involving lost children getting drowned and turning into ghosts. As we filed out of the church, after the long performance, I turned to the children and apologised for inflicting such a ghastly two hours on them and noticed something unusual in my offspring, who are fairly hard to please at the best of times – ie when on safari, in the Caribbean, skiing, etc. Their faces were aglow. Their eyes were shining.
As we left the church, my daughter added her name to a list for those who wanted to audition for this year’s production, Game Over, an edgy composition about the fantasy world of computer games and alienation by Guy Dagul, with Jane Aspeling as librettist. I then forgot all about it for six months.
In June, a letter arrived, from Lucy Le Fanu, the company manager of W11 Opera. In it, she announced that Jamie Hayes, of the Holland Park Opera (his I Pagliacci was described as “a thing of wonder” by a rival newspaper), had been newly appointed stage director. Philip Colman, a ringer for Beethoven who teaches at the Trinity College of Music, would be continuing to serve as music director, making a professional team of just five, her letter said.
Then came the bit that froze the blood, and led me to hide her letter amidst the snowdrift of paperwork (school fee demands, invoices for music tuition and dentistry and forms for summer sports camps) that I knew in my heart I would not tackle until September, by which time it would all be too late.
“The rest of it is over to all of us parents who come to together to create the wonderful production that W11 Opera invariably is,” Lucy’s letter said. “To those of you parents who are new to W11 and to old hands alike, I must emphasise how much we will need your co-operation and help in mounting this year’s production. It is an integral part of the ethos that every parent makes his or her contribution. It goes without saying that we all (her italics) have to juggle W11 with many demands in our lives: young children, ageing relatives, demanding work situations, charity commitments, and most of us have full or part time jobs. Nevertheless W11 is totally reliant on your contribution…”
That was June. I decided then, pretty much, that W11 Opera was obviously run by iron ladies with perma-smiles who were grimly putting the talents they used to devote to being lawyers or bankers or CEOs to organising women less efficient than them, and that would never take No for an answer – and that, in other words, it was not my demographic. No way.
But in September, I bumped into the friend, Claire, who had given me tickets to Stormlight. “Is Milly auditioning, then?” she asked. “What for?” I replied, carefully. “W11 Opera, durrr,” said Claire. “The audition’s at 4.45pm, and she’ll have to sing a song.” I rushed off to find Milly, forgetting in the heat of the moment my prejudices against the busy organisers of the parish and, indeed, about the advice given to Mrs Worthington (never put your daughter on stage, durrr).
“Darling, do you want to do the Opera, you know last year, that girl who got lost and sang a song that went on and on and had only one word in it, remember?” Milly was silent. “Well if you do, you have to learn a song,” I went on, feeling my transformation into Hollywood Mom already starting, like the onset of puberty, whether I liked it or not.
“By when?” Milly asked. “By now,” I replied, imagining her covered with greasepaint and bowing to wild applause, as I graciously accepted compliments on her behalf. “Quickly! We’re going to the church to audition.”
And, this, I suppose, is when I feel my first tingle of W11 excitement. At the church, there are children everywhere, rehearsing snatches of song (Milly is singing Nowhere Man by the Beatles, after I vetoed a nasal rendition of Britney Spear’s Hit Me Baby One More Time). Old-time parents are greeting each other as if it’s the first day back at boarding school, and brave William Faulks, a sunny-faced 11-year-old, is back for his third attempt.
The children are taken off for the auditions, and the parents are seated in the pews. I fill out the forms I lost in June. A scarily efficient woman from the company claps her hands. For the benefit of new parents like me, she reminds us again that we parents have to put in just as much work and effort into W11 as the children. Already feeling the pressure’s on, I tick boxes offering to provide food, drink, help with publicity, box office, the programme, advertising, to be an usher, and two big clear-ups. I have not ticked boxes for set building, costumes, props, set painting, make up, dressing, or photography, but I feel this shows the right W11 spirit (which is, essentially, that nothing is too much to ask of anyone, however busy).
Then the woman pauses, and gazes at the congregation, and I realise that the organisers are not merely about casting children, they’re casting the parents too. Despite my longing for Milly to get a part – a big part – I am still not prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. The ultimate sacrifice is not, by the way, making six lasagnes for the dress rehearsal, or sewing all 225 costumes needed. No, the ultimate sacrifice means volunteering to be a Group Mother. Group Mothers and Assistant Group Mothers get to every rehearsal before it starts and don’t leave until well after it finishes, are in charge of numerous costumes, the well-being of their group, and are expected to come laden with snacks and drinks. As a newcomer to the company, I don’t feel I am ready, yet, to be cast in such a starring role.
At the end of the auditions, we are told that if we do not receive a telephone call by the weekend, we are to assume that our children (and the parents, of course) have been successful in their auditions. As I leave the church, another mother sees me reading the noticeboard, which is already covered with rehearsal times, costume lists and demands for props. She is American. “Can I give you a piece of advice?” She says, without waiting for an answer. “Go home, take the rehearsal schedule, and commit it to memory. This is going to take over your life!”
With just a week to go until the curtain goes up at the Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, I have somewhat changed my tune, and I’m not just saying this because I’ve come over luvvie and want my children to get even bigger parts next year.
I am – honestly – humbled by the mind-boggling feats achieved by the eight Group Mothers, the musical and stage directors, and the 85 children, who have been attending three-hour rehearsals almost every other day for weeks, in bringing this year’s brilliant production, Game Over (in which my daughter, I am proud to tell you, plays a pixie), to a professional theatre.
Despite her hectic Pixie schedule, my daughter is in seventh heaven, never stops singing, and I am wafting around telling everyone I meet that I am far too busy and important to talk because my daughter’s in an opera, which is something of a show-stopper remark even in Notting Hill. I have even sewed her two costumes by hand, the first time I have picked up a needle since 1975.
During the countless rehearsals, I have watched the Group Mothers sit watching, or sewing, or appliquéing costumes, waiting for the breaks and for their charges to surround them for Hob Nobs and Coke, while the soloists huddle with Philip Colman, the music director. After the break, I’ve heard the stage director says things like, “The good news is we’ve got right through to the end. The bad news is we’ve got to right back to the beginning,” and the children don’t groan, but work their socks off until night falls. And every time they rehearse the finale, (Open your minds/And store in your memory/So that you can retrieve/What you have learnt here/For the computer we are truly thankful/Hallowed be the game…) I always find the tears prickling as I watch 85 children singing their hearts out, in a draughty church, on a rainy evening in the darkest time of year.
I came to W11 Opera as a local but a newcomer, very aware that to most outside observers, the company represents the privileged (privately-educated children with middle-class pushy mothers) participating in an elite art form (professional opera). It sounds infuriating, I know. But if you stop to think about what they achieve – and hurry to buy tickets before they sell out – it is nothing short of inspirational.
W11 has commissioned no less than 25 operas since 1971, and casts only school-age singers, reflecting a gap in the existing repertoire for the age group. (“It’s all too easy to do Oliver!” I am told). Nearly three thousand children have appeared in the productions to date, including percussionist Evelyn Glennie, and Saskia Wickham. Ten years ago or so, you would have spotted popstrel Sophie Ellis-Bextor, aged 10, as a grasshopper.
But the company tries hard not to reflect the wealth and status of its W11 name and neighbourhood. It is symbolic of the aspirations of W11 that it did not take William Faulks his first two attempts (even though his father is the novelist Sebastian: “we don’t take them just because they’ve got glitzy parents, they have to be ready,” I am told) but was delighted to offer him a part this year. Lucy spends days trawling state schools and lobbying music teachers to try to get children to audition, and this year, a third of the cast are from that sector. And yet, despite its community performance and subsidy of children from poor backgrounds, the company receives not a penny from its local council, Kensington and Chelsea, and has just been turned down for a grant by the Performing Rights Foundation. It is reliant on box office sales and donations from the likes of the Sainsbury family and the Britten Pears foundation to put on each £60,000 production.
I have spoken to many of these state-school children (some come from as far away as Hackney) and they tell me they have made new friends, think the directors are brilliant, and that it is a top thing to do. Kayshore and Charlotte are in Year Six, at a local primary, Avondale. “Well, some children are posh,” said Charlotte, “You can tell by their speech, and some of them say things like they’ve got four houses and all this staff, but that’s them, isn’t it? We’re all the same here, though, and it doesn’t mean anything.”
Adds Kayshore: “I’ve never heard of their plans for secondary school, and they’ve never heard of where we’re going (Holland Park Comp and Sion Manning), but that’s irrelevant, isn’t it? It’s just really good fun.”
And as for the Group Mothers – I take my hat off to them. As a career slacker, I allowed myself at first to assume that the women who took on the most had the least on their plates. They must be, I decided, a bit like the Emma Thompson character in Love, Actually, who spends a week making a lobster costume for her child’s Nativity Play, and then berates herself (after discovering her husband’s perfidy in the office) for treating her mothering and housewifely duties with such blind professionalism.
But the W11 Opera does not attract the mothers who have not enough to do. I have to report that these super-duper-mums have jobs and children – but they still are prepared to sacrifice every last minute of time they don’t have to see children sing live on stage, in a climactic, Richard Curtis-style celebration of Christmas, the triumph of love, children, singing, and silly costumes.
And some mothers, I note, even come back to help after if their children aren’t in it at all. “W11 has its own momentum and is its own reward,” says one of them, Lucy Le Fanu, who is a music teacher in a state school, and mother of four, one of whom has Down’s, as well as company manager.
“It’s a year long job, from the commissioning, to sorting out the venue, and getting the production underway. My aide memoire for everything I have to do runs to 20 pages. After doing this for a few years,” she adds, looking at the stage, where girls in red wigs and tights are belting out a funky number, “I do feel I could organise absolutely anything.”