Royal College of Music
W11 Opera for Young People takes its name from its London postcode and sets out to prove there is more to Notting Hill than Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Unique amongst opera companies, W11 Opera for Young People casts only school-age singers for each new opera it commissions every year. Entirely professionally produced, the performances are a stunningly unusual musical event. No other opera company regularly commissions a world première specifically for a cast of this age-group, nor has any other built a repertoire of such diverse music and themes. Sarah Johnson from the W11 team explains.
A red banner hangs, Nuremburg Rally style, over the stage of the Royal College of Music’s Britten Theatre. The word HELL is emblazoned on it in huge letters. After a minute or two it dawns on the audience that this grim object is a scrap torn from the masthead of a magazine: Hello!
We are in the microscopic world of insects, and war is about to commence… fought with matchsticks by some very, very tiny soldiers, some barely four foot high. ANTiphony, the latest W11 Opera for Young People production, has arrived.
It will not surprise you to learn that London W11, the postcode which brought you David Cameron and the Notting Hill Tories, also what may be some of the most ambitious parents in the world. But ambitious parents can be harnessed to benefit the rest of us — and W11 Opera is living proof.
In 1971 a group of very musical, talented families got together to stage a children’s production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde in a fine Victorian church just off Holland Park Avenue. Flushed with success, these parents began the task which makes W11 Opera a bit different from your average community music venture. They began going out, grabbing composers and librettists and commissioning their own full length pieces which are now in the public domain for everyone to use.
Any school planning its next big production would do well to dip into the W11 backlist, via our website. There you will find information about most of the recent pieces. We are updating it with more information throughout this year.
For the children, the year starts with auditions in early September, and, if chosen, they commit to weekly rehearsals for the next 3 months. A scholarship scheme has been established so that parental ability to pay the £100 joining-up fee need not affect a keen child from participating.
Once your child is accepted, you are handed a daunting list of voluntary activities and asked to tick off what you can do for W11: anything from cleaning the church which we use for rehearsals, selling programmes, sewing costumes, publicity or advertising — all the way through to the ultimate sacrifice: being a Group Mother.
Group Mothers (and some Fathers) are the key to organising 70-90 kids aged 9 and up into a coherent, professional-sounding and professional-looking cast. Each Group Mother has charge of 6-8 youngsters. She is responsible for minding them during rehearsals, ensuring they get everywhere on time and maintaining their costumes. She supplies snacks and encouragement, and summons the forgetful parents who have abandoned their offspring at the church.
A good W11 Opera commission firstly always has a large range of characters and ‘active’ choruses who build up their own collective and individual personalities. As anyone knows who has cast a school show, finding roles for everyone can be a headache, and most of the time Granny will have to drive 50 miles to see her grand-daughter for five minutes, hidden by scenery, at the back of the chorus. Not so with a W11 show.
Secondly, the music must be appropriate for children and teenagers to perform – not adults. Children cannot sing gigantic operatic arias and if you stage Guys and Dolls or Grease as your annual school musical, you are putting small, untrained people into roles for large, trained people. On the other hand we are constantly amazed at the challenges to which the youngsters can rise. Some adults feared 2004’s modernistic All In The Mind by Edward Lambert was too difficult — but nonetheless the children astonished us all by mastering its tricky harmonies.
Thirdly, the subject matter must grab the children enough to make them come in on cold Monday evenings to rehearse it. Oh, and it needs to be suitable. Call us old fashioned, but we do like a witty text and a happy ending. Also, there are some great musicals that feel unexpectedly seedy when performed by children.
For example, I never really twigged how the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic Oklahoma! is about sex, all about sex and about nothing but sex until I saw Year 6 children performing it. Watching a rouged-up ten year old squirm her way knowingly through “Ah’m just a girl who cain’t say No” before an audience including three exceptionally saintly Catholic priests is not an experience I am keen to repeat.
ANTiphony, penned for us by Graham Preskett and John Kane in 1994, ticks all the right boxes. The original show starred a teenaged Sophie Ellis-Bextor, now one of our Patrons. The director was a young actress, Eve Best, also now a Patron, who last year was acclaimed as one of the most electrifying Hedda Gablers the West End has seen in recent years.
We can’t say which of this year’s cast will equal Eve and Sophie, but they are certainly getting a great start. The standards required by music director, Philip Colman mean that we now annually provide children’’s choruses for the nearby professional opera Holland Park. Our stage director Rob Kearley and our choreographer, Anne-Marie Smalldon, have the knack of knowing what they can ask of children; and our designer, Mike Lees, excelled himself for ANTiphony.
Inspired by the war-versus-peace story Mike hit on a 1940s’ theme and a produced a stream of witty, wartime stereotypes. The Warrior Ant queen became a Rita Hayworth look-alike, and her opposite number in The Worker Ant Colony was the epitome of good breeding, in Dior and white gloves. The Worker Ants, in pinnies and hair-curlers, came straight out of a World War 2 propaganda film. The stage was bursting with visual jokes: all for a show running for just six performances.
Anyone taking on a W11 commission has to remember the final key ingredient: a finale involving the whole cast of 70 or more on stage, cheeks flushed and eyes shining, singing their little hearts out about how wonderful everything is and how great it is to be alive. This is the moment when we parents suddenly forget the difficult rehearsals, the tantrums, the invitations to Christmas parties we had to turn down all through December; this is the moment when we turn misty-eyed to each other and say, “Oh I do hope she wants to audition again next year!”
Opera Now March/April 2006
Pioneering, exuberant, vital: W11 Opera for Young People is all these and more to opera’s future. In 34 years, this small London company has commissioned 26 major pieces of music theatre for children to perform. Uniquely among opera companies, it is building an imaginative repertoire for 9-18 year olds.
On paper, this is extraordinary enough, especially given that W11 is run by volunteers and receives no public funding. But to see a live production – this takes the breath away.
The revival of Graham Preskett and John Kane’s ANTiphony is a feel-good gem. When two musical grasshoppers inspire a colony of peace-loving Worker Ants to mega-productivity, a rival Warrior Queen wonders if music might do the same for her reluctant Soldier Ants. Enter a wide-boy fly with a penchant for lucrative espionage who kidnaps one grasshopper for the blood-thirsty regent. With the soldiers fired up, the two ant colonies stand on the brink of war – until music saves the day.
Reworked since W11’s commission in 1994 (and performed since by a US opera group), dialogue has disappeared and ANTiphony is now sung through, upping the pace and creating a gentle introduction to the disciplines of opera. The children’s enunciation was crystal clear throughout. A good thing, too: Kane’s intelligent libretto romps along with great humour.
The score errs towards operetta-musical, which is typical of community opera though ANTiphony no means the norm for W11; last year’s commission, All in the Mind by Edward Lambert, was challengingly tonal. ANTiphony embraces swing, jazz, tango, serene interludes, even some R&B rhythms creep in. Preskett tests his young performers, too. Besides the rousing choruses he demands delicate harmonies, ensembles, and he challenges soloists at the top of the register.
Music Director Philip Colman conducts the 10-piece orchestra with verve and coaxes an absolute scene-stealer from Milly Kenny-Ryder as the Warrior Queen. Singing “She’s a Queen” and clad in red PVC, she is quite the petulant monarch. Rob Kearley’s direction and Anne-Marie Smalldon’s playful choreography make the most of the cast of 71 — mostly girls — on the modest Britten Theatre stage. Production Designer Mike Lees doesn’t miss a trick with his witty set designs (towering Coke cans and giant Swan Vesta matches evoke the ants’ nests).
All this after just three months’ rehearsal! W11 deserves more than worthy plaudits for staging community opera. Energy pumps through this slick crowd-pleaser: W11’s enthusiasm and young talent is bewitching.
12th December 2005
The Worker Ants are oppressed and bored. Their train has been cancelled yet again and they’ve had to walk to work. Meanwhile, the Soldier Ants in another colony are feeling distinctly unmilitaristic. Along comes a pair of grasshopper minstrels. They encourage the Workers to sing a happy song and productivity improves spectacularly. But one grasshopper is enticed to the other camp, where he sings songs of hatred. The troops are duly stirred and, armed with matchsticks, invade their neighbours.
That’s the setting of Graham Preskett’s ANTiphony, written in 1994 for W11 Opera and now revived by that same excellent children’s company. John Kane’s libretto, sung throughout, is funny and smart, and Preskett offers an equivalently witty, fluent score that tunefully parodies a wide range of popular styles. My favourite number is the Soldier Ants’ catchy She’s a Queen, which explains the absolute freedom of their femme-fatale monarch.
Rob Kearley’s production and Anne-Marie Smalldon’s choreography demand slick stagecraft, but this troupe responds brilliantly, spearheaded by the endearing character-acting of Eleanor Swithinbank and Milly Kenny-Ryder (Worker Queen and Warrior Queen), of Molly Alexander and Ava Morgan (the two grasshoppers) and of Chenowyth Pinter (the Fly on the Wall). In the pit Philip Colman and his band enter gleefully into the piece’s spirit.