Royal College of Music
Just over half-way through this 70-minute show I found myself putting down my critic’s pen in order to hunt for a handkerchief, moved to real tears by an irresistibly touching scene in which a young evacuee, beautifully sung and acted by treble Céline Buckens, says farewell to her mother as she gets on a train to the country. Having been aware for years that W11 Opera is something special, I was not disappointed by my first opportunity to catch one of its productions.
The key to W11’s character is in the west London postcode from which it takes its name. W11 covers Kensington and Notting Hill, areas where Norland-trained nannies traditionally take their charges to the park in well-sprung perambulators and the streets are populated with crocodiles of immaculately-uniformed prep school pupils. To this demographic has been added in recent years the lustre of celebrity. There were some famous faces in the audience at the performance I attended, and some well-known surnames in the cast list. Stagecraft is clearly in the blood of some of the young performers.
However, North Kensington also has its fair share of council estates, and the list of 60 or so schools from which the casts have been drawn over the years include state primaries and comprehensives in addition to some elite. The Avondale Extra project sponsors three children from Avondale Park Primary to take part in W11 productions and the company itself has sponsored two ex-Avondale pupils to continue to take part. In addition to the Britten Theatre performances a luncheon and matinee performance is offered each year to invited groups from local special needs schools and centres for disadvantaged adults.
W11 Children’s Opera Trust was founded in 1971 by local parents who were keen to stage a children’s opera each Christmas, originally in St James’s Church, Norland Gardens, which is still the company’s base. The factors that make the venture unique are the size of the cast – around 90 children in each show – the involvement of a professional orchestra and production team and most importantly the commissioning of a new work almost every year from both young and established composers. To date 30 new works have been added to the repertoire of opera for children, by composers such as John Gardner, Timothy Kraemer, David Bedford, Karl Jenkins, David Knotts and Cecilia McDowall.
The 2007 offering, Shadowtracks, was inspired by historian John Clarke’s account of the Necropolis Railway, which ran funeral trains from central London to Brookwood Cemetery in Surrey for nearly 90 years. When a modern railway terminus shuts down for the night, ghosts and memories arrive on the Necropolis train to inhabit it; but one night the engine breaks down and the ghosts are stranded in the present, where they mingle with the bustling travellers of today.
From the moment the 21st-century commuter train pulled out of the station and its Victorian counterpart chuffed in, until its heart-warming denouement, the show was utterly engaging. A lavish staging helped, with set design by Neil Irish and marvellous costumes by Mike Lees; highlights included modern-day drinks vendors in day-glow colours and a female barbershop quartet of station announcers in Edwardian garb, with clock faces on their mortar-board hats. The slick and imaginative direction was by Annilese Miskimmon. music director Philip Colman kept the pace moving while skilfully supporting the numerous young soloists and ensembles, who were all quite excellent, with the possible exception of a group of rather self-effacing suffragettes. The singing of the children’s chorus was outstanding, and the only down side was that so many of the male roles were taken by girls – as the company’s age range goes up to 18, it is a shame they cannot find any young tenors or basses willing to get involved.
But it was the opera itself that impressed me most. Music and libretto hang together beautifully, with an effective ebb and flow of mood and action. Christina Jones has provided a witty text, full of subtlety, which is never swamped by Julian Grant’s colourful score for small ensemble. This is genuinely original, effective writing by an experienced composer who knows exactly what he is doing. Shadowtracks deserves to have a long and successful life beyond this production.
For anyone who has ever missed the last train home there was a wry familiarity about the opening scene of the 28th work of music theatre commissioned and performed by W11 Opera for Young People. A bunch of would-be travellers turn up at a railway terminus just in time to see the back end of their train glide away down the platform. They disperse to find other transport and only an old lady, Sarah, remains seated under the clock. Although she leaves before the station closes, she is the link with the occupants of the necropolis train which arrives every night to disgorge its cargo of travellers come to recapture the past: Victorian street life, World War I soldiers, nurses and suffragettes, World War II evacuees parting from their mothers. But the ghosts are stranded when their engine breaks down and they become caught up in the morning crowds of contemporary travellers, intermingling with station staff and vendors, trainspotters, race-goers, football supporters – and an elderly woman who proves to be Linda, the long-lost sister from whom Sarah was separated by evacuation and for whose return she has waited over the years.
If the main thread of the action did not stand out, the swift sequence of events was neatly dovetailed in Christina Jones’s libretto. The score by Julian Grant evoked the periods represented with echoes of a suffragette song, of 1940s dance music and of contemporary pop. He concentrated on chorus numbers, for with a cast ranging in age from nine to 18 not all the individual voices could be heard even with an orchestra of only eight, though the conductor Philip Colman kept the balance. Gabriel Harris sang and acted well as Sarah and was joined by Ava Leman Morgan as Linda in an attractive duet; the four Spirits of the Clock sang strongly, and 13 of the youngest performers made a touching impact as ghostly evacuees. Annilese Miskimmon’s direction galvanized the large cast; Neil Irish designed the impressive station set.
January 6th 2008
Though much more modest in its aims, Julian Grant’s Shadowtracks (to a libretto by Christina Jones) is also worth noting. As the 28th new work commissioned by W11 Opera, it continues a remarkable tradition of giving local schoolchildren their own operatic voice.
Poignant and amusing, Shadowtracks is set in a modern railway terminus after it has closed for the night: the Necropolis train (based on funeral trains that once really existed) brings back ghosts and memories, and when one night it breaks down, the phantoms begin to mix with today’s characters. Missing people are reunited, and trainspotters even find love. Annilese Miskimmon’s production and Philip Colman’s musical direction made their mark at the Britten Theatre. Grant’s fresh score, which includes especially witty writing for a quartet of Spirits of the Station Clock, deserves its own afterlife and ought to be taken up by other groups.