Riverside Studios, London W6
Opera Now March-April 2010
Due to celebrate its 40th anniversary this year, W11 Opera has a remarkable tradition of giving local – west London, as the postcode-cum-title reflects – schoolchildren their own operatic voice. Rain Dance is the 31st piece the company has commissioned, a habit that began as early as W11’s second year with Christopher Bowers Broadbent’s The Pied Piper; the next, anniversary commission is due to come from no less an experienced hand than Julian Grant. This season’s composer was Stuart Hancock, new to opera but with a number of film scores to his credit, who tapped into the African subject matter while avoiding any Lion King-style clichés. There’s an especially good chorus about the baobab, yet a little more African flavour in the instrumentation for the 11-piece band would not have gone amiss (and indeed, Maggie Rawlinson’s movement could also have done with more stomp), but everything matched well with the libretto by Donald Sturrock (responsible for The Golden Ticket at St Louis and Wexford). His story tells of a crisis facing the animals of the savannah, whose waterhole is almost dry and who need to find a leader able to save them. At the hustings, the bullying and corrupt lion, Tau, is elected but proves a disaster. In despair, the animals turn to the fleet-footed hare, Roli, for help. He’s still traumatized by his grandfather’s defeat by the tortoise, but triumphs in the end. A lot of early lessons in climate change and democracy – not to mention cynicism about politicians – are packed into the 70-minute piece.
Tightly directed by Ben Occhipinti in Neil Irish’s resourceful and evocative set, the performance came to catchy life under the musical direction of Philip Sunderland. The 80-strong cast gave a committed and disciplined performance, led by Jonathan Antoine (Tau), Elizabeth Banes (Roli), Miranda Ostler (his wife, Mandisa) and Izzy Kent (the returning officer, Bello the Meerkat). My research assistant (and five-year-old son) was still singing the songs several days later, suggesting that Rain Dance has enough appeal to deserve further outings.
85 kids in W11 Opera’s Rain Dance
The Stage / Education & Training
Last night I was at Riverside Studios, Hammersmith being blown away by an entertaining, thoughtful new opera by Stuart Hancock (music) and Donald Sturrock (words). But what blows me away even more is that the 85 on stage are aged 9-18 and they’ve been working on this only since September.
Rain Dance was W11 Opera for Young People’s 2010 production and the eighth to benefit from having Knight Frank, the estate agent, as a lead sponsor – although this is not a cheap thing to mount and the earnest quest for donations is ongoing.
Over 3,000 young people have taken part in such a show since W11 started in 1971 – including Sophie Ellis-Bextor, Saskia Wickham, Jemima Rooper and Eve Best, in their youth.
Although the first ever W11 opera was Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, for many years now the organisation usually commissions a new work each year – arrangements are well in hand for 2012 and 2013. So a repertoire of over 30 new works has been created.
‘Open auditions attract a cast drawn from around 35 schools across London,’ Sarah Johnson, W11 Children’s Opera Trust trustee, told me before the show, adding that some individual financial support can be offered if a child cannot participate without it.
Rain Dance, based on a short story by Tish Farrell is an ingenious – very accessible – political satire about a group of animals who have to elect a new leader to deal with a crisis: lack of rainfall and water shortage caused by climate change. Inevitably there is corruption in the form of Tau the Lion sung by the larger than life Jonathan Antoine who has a splendid sneering stage presence and a pleasing bass voice.
There were also outstanding performances from Elizabeth Barnes as Roli the Hare, Miranda Ostler as Mrs Hare, Alexa Tamsett as an elderly rhino, Izzy Kent as Bello the Meerkat – aka the returning officer – and Izzy Cullinan as a hornbill/journalist. And all this was immaculately accompanied by a professional 10-piece band under musical director Philip Sutherland.
I liked the well choreographed (by Maggie Rawlinson) chorus work and the structure of the piece which allowed a large number of the cast a few lines of solo work and/or a moment of prominence. Democratic theatre, in every sense.
And Caroline Bronwen Hughes’s costumes were a tour de force too. She kept it simple and based most outfits on colour-themed, quasi everyday clothes colours. Thus the zebras sported striped hoodies and Tau’s (very funny) little leonine harem, high fashion items in yellows and golds.
There were five performances of Rain Dance over the weekend and I bet those young people are feeling very flat today – although many return year after year until they reach the cut-off age of 18.
‘Because quite large numbers of our participants come from private schools we are constantly looking for ways of attracting more youngsters from state schools,’ said Johnson. That is partly why there is always a ‘community’ performance to which school and other groups are invited. Tea with the cast and a pre-show workshop are offered too. The organisation is working hard to publicise what it does to stress that there is an opportunity here for any child from any background who can ‘hold a line.’
‘Our other challenge,’ says Johnson ruefully, ‘is to entice more boys.’ The cast of Rain Dance included only 9 boys to 76 girls.
W11 Opera celebrates its fortieth birthday next year. And, as an opportunity creator, and a developer of confidence and talent, it has lot going for it – and all without any sort of public grant. It’s all done on hard work, goodwill and mucking in. I wish it well.
What a wonderful way into opera
The Daily Telegraph
Rupert Christiansen feels encouraged by W11 Opera – a company which produces operas performed by children.
Read the full review on The Daily Telegraph website.