Opera Now March-April 2010
A gang of kids performing contemporary opera – hardly my idea of a good time…And yet, however much terror one feels at the prospect of watching the little Jessamines and Caractaci of W11 Opera (based in London’s achingly fashionable Notting Hill) presenting their annual show, it nearly always turns out to be a delightful, touching and thoroughly musically worthwhile event.
I can say with complete honesty that The Whale Savers was about a hundred times better a Christmas show – uplifting, funny, sweet – than either of the drab extravaganzas provided by the capital’s leading opera companies, The Tsarina’s Slippers at Covent Garden and Messiah at ENO (see review of the former on page 99). The music was better than the former’s too. And importantly, at a mere 70 minutes, unlike them it didn’t even run the risk of ruining an entire evening.
Martin Ward’s astonishingly complex score (relatively: we are talking Sondheim-type levels of sophistication) is a really attractive piece of work with, for once, hardly a nod to Britten except in location: we find ourselves in a jauntily timeless seaside town, Farnaway, spiritually more Loxford than the Borough, where a whale has carelessly run aground.
The question is whether, and how, to refloat the beast. In a hilariously adept analysis of political stereotypes, the shopkeepers and town oldsters – crypto-Nazis all – advocate letting the thing die in order to a) milk tourists and maximise profits, and b) avoid incurring the wrath of God.
The venal town council caves in, blackmailed by the shopkeepers. It is left to the teens and an upstanding assistant curator to effect the whale’s getaway with the help of some ghosts and an ancient spell. Phil Porter’s libretto is stuffed full of great jokes and names: I particularly liked John Dawton’s Gusto Falk, the slimy, freakish Prime Minister (guess who) with his pithily opportunistic appearance (‘My love of whales goes back to childhood…’). It’s hard to resist a cast list including councillor Maud Rankle, journalist Hannah Tantrum and spin-chick Mimi Quacksalver.
The 60 children on stage required some marshalling and Ben Occhipinti shepherded the various chorus group niftily round Neil Irish’s brilliantly economical, sail-bedecked stage. It’s hardly fair to single anyone out in such a show but the principals – Ariane L’Heveder’s corrupt curator, Holly Brown as her assistant, Flo Hare’s mayoress, Maya Daniels as the Queen (!) and Daniel Mayers’s have-a-go teen Jamie were all impressively confident performers. Anna Wilmot’s old-timer Ebeneezer has a really promising voice, too.
They were all truly stretched in the best way by Ward’s score, veering from sea shanty to neo-Bernstein to eerie modernist string-quartet, beautifully played by a band of nine, modulating, veering around time-signatures, breezy and not at all superficial. How conductor Philip Colman kept it all together, mostly via TV monitor, is a mysterious wonder. This complete lack of patronising is one of the company’s best features.
This setup receives no public money and has commissioned 30 operas in its 39-year history. Clearly its catchment area – the postcode that gives the company its name represents a centre of enormous wealth – doesn’t hurt, but auditions are open to all and the company strives to include the unprivileged as well. It’s a little miracle, and I hope it goes on for ever.
Classic FM Arts Daily
Podcast interview with Bob Jones, December 6th, 2009
Click here (9:51).
Classroom Music magazine
Autumn term 2009
Rhian Morgan talks to the London-based youth opera organisation about their back catalogue of commissions and discusses how you can put on these and other contemporary operas in your school.
Read the full review (PDF)
Music Teacher magazine
Every year W11 Opera commissions a professional composer, music director and production crew to produce a new work which is rehearsed in a term and performed by children and young people from Notting Hill in West London. Kimon Daltas describes the process
Thirty-eight years and 29 new operas down the line, it is easy to say that W11 Opera is a youth opera company like no other. One wonders if Serena Hughes, W11’s founder, had an inkling of the things to come when she presided over the first production in 1971. Lucy Le Fanu, the current co-chair and a long-standing trustee, takes us back to the fateful moment: “The first performances of W11 were of a spectacular production of Noye’s Fludde. At the end there was a tug on Serena’s sleeve from a small person asking what was going to be done next year. Serena realised that there was no further repertoire suitable for such large casts of around 100 young people aged nine to 18, and so the commissioning process began.”
This year’s production, on 5 and 6 December at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, and W11’s 30th new commission, is The Whale Savers by composer Martin Ward on a libretto by Phil Porter. Though revisions are likely during the rehearsal process, we do know it is set in a remote fishing village, where a beached whale appears – the fate of which divides the community. Most likely, as well as whale savers there are whale eaters in the village!
There are special challenges to composing a work for W11, not least the available vocal range when the majority of the 80-or-so cast members are aged ten to 13. “The biggest challenge is the similarity in all the singers’ ranges,” agrees Martin Ward. “With adults the overall vocal range would cover three to four octaves and with a greater variety of vocal timbres across that range. With the children the range is just over an octave and a half and all the vocal sound and quality is quite similar. They do make a beautiful sound as a group, but the challenge comes in employing the voices in a way that creates a variety of sound over the course of the opera, capturing the light and dark of the story and creating a cast of characters each with a varied and recognisable sound.”
And that highlights another signature W11 trait, enshrined in their methodical commissioning process – that as many mini solos as possible are included, so that the children don’t just end up being part of the scenery. How does a composer manage with this rather unique requirement, so unlike “normal” opera which tends to be, at least partly, a vehicle for a few strong voices?
“I’ve been to see W11 productions for the last two years and I’ve watched the previous two on DVD,” says Ward, “so I have had a chance to glean ideas and learn from previous composers’ work. The librettist, Phil Porter, and I set out to create a large cast of individuals (each of the 80 characters has a name and occupation) to inhabit the fishing village in which the drama is set. This approach of seeing the cast as individuals who form allegiances and groupings as the drama unfolds made the mini-solo task a lot easier. We have 28 solo parts ranging from the major leads down to the Reverend Gulliver Butterbandidge who sings just seven notes, but if, during rehearsal, there are more singers willing and able to sing a mini solo then we have the option of stealing a few lines here and there from chorus groups to enable that to happen.”
Obviously, not every commissioned work will turn out as successful as ones before, but W11 has robust processes in place to make sure it gets as near as possible to what it needs – though the ins and outs vary considerably from commission to commission: “We are both approached by young composers wanting to work for us, and also make direct approaches ourselves to other composers,” says Le Fanu. There is a small commissioning committee which considers compositions and storylines submitted, meets composers and makes final decisions. We encourage interested composers and librettists to attend our productions in order to gain some understanding of our most unusual company and its work.
“Commissions are always composer- rather than librettist-led, although clearly the storyline is of the utmost importance, needing to appeal to our special cast constituency and involving so many people on stage. Composers bring their own librettists, and storylines are considered in detail before any commitment to a composer is made. We have a detailed Commissioning Brief covering such matters as tessitura, part writing, orchestration etc, as well as guidelines about the structure of the drama, the need for many different groups and characters. However we are also aware of the need to be as unprescriptive as possible, wanting the widest range of subject matter and musical styles. We aim to commission at least two years ahead in order to give us maximum consultation time with composer and librettist.”
The term ‘cast constituency’ is one that raises other issues, beyond vocal range. Audiences are bound to notice an imbalance, with girls outnumbering boys around four to one – even more in the older age groups. The tide may be shifting – last year’s The Song of Rhiannon, by Mark Bowden and Helen Cooper, had four broken male voices turning on stage, quite possibly a first for W11. But the problem remains: “It is definitely harder to get boys involved and W11 Opera has tried many strategies,” says Sarah Johnson, W11 trustee […]. “We encourage our composers and librettists to avoid stories where everybody is going to be dressed up as a fairy or a fluffy bunny rabbit, for example.”
“Boys themselves have told us that they aren’t so interested in the ‘sitting around gossiping’ aspect of rehearsals, which for the girls is a major attraction; it seems that boys want to turn up, do their thing and go. So, we encourage clever casting that puts the boys in a group with each other for rehearsals. For example, if the story involves a distinct group of soldiers or football supporters or cavemen or whatever it is much more fun for them – they will form their own team.”
There is plenty working against the company on the boy front, not least what Johnson describes as “a massive cultural prejudice”. “My own 14-year-old son,” she continues, “who is at a state secondary school, likes to keep it a bit quiet at school that he ‘does opera’ even though his school has an outstanding musical tradition of its own. He’s not part of the musical clique, you see, so he has to keep his street cred with the rest of the lads. Boys from both the state sector and the private sector, I think, are under huge pressure to conform to an anti-culture culture whereby anything remotely classical, or difficult, is ‘for girls’.
A huge part of the viability of W11, not to mention its modest annual fee (further supported by a number of bursaries) is the freely given time of many parents. “Do parents get involved?!” laughs Johnson. “Do they not! W11 Opera could not possibly do what it does every year without a huge number of highly dedicated parents.” From positions of responsibility with a significant time commitment to just putting one’s name on a rota once in a while, “the W11 ethos is that there must be something you can do,” says Johnson.
And inclusivity is a buzzword is [sic] in that cast constituency, too: despite the rather smart west London postcode which lends the company its name, diversifying the social mix among its members is very much on the agenda. It would certainly seem fairly natural that a youth opera company in Notting Hill would attract a significant percentage of its membership from affluent backgrounds.
“It is predominantly middle class but I think it’s unwise to assume that that equals “affluent”,” says Johnson. Some of our most active parents have become involved through Avondale Extra, an outreach programme linked with a local primary school. And a bursary scheme has been built up which ensures that no child is excluded from taking part for financial reasons.
“Of the schools attended by children who are involved, one third are state secondary or primary schools. It should be more and I’m glad to say this proportion has been creeping upwards, and we make a point of inviting heads and music teachers to productions.”
Lucy Le Fanu adds: “Some children from the primary school under the Avondale Extra scheme wish to continue with W11 after secondary transfer into the comprehensive, and thereby encourage their peers to become interested as well. We have made great efforts to broaden the social mix.”
It certainly seems like W11 is doing a lot of things right; its longevity speaks for itself on that count. If only it had more enthusiastic imitators throughout the country.