Original Features – 2011
Riverside Studios, London W6
W11 Opera celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2011, and celebrations are most definitely in order. Since its foundation, the company has commissioned 33 operas to be performed by young people from schools and youth groups in every area covered by the West London postcode. And they have been operas – not musicals – with ambitious, demanding music and challenging themes, which have prompted committed and accomplished performances by children ranging in age from eight to 18.
With Original Features, the Composer Julian Grant and librettist Christina Jones have constructed an intriguing multi-layer drama around a beautiful but derelict house. It is inhabited by the ghosts of servants past, who step out of an 18th-century painting, and is brought back to life by the artist William Carrington and his wife Georgie. They are deemed worthy of living in the house by its eccentric owner and go on to fill it with wildly colourful paintings and equally colourful children, suitably named Crimson, Emerald, Indigo, Amber, Sky, Violet and Ruby.
It is the 1920’s and Grant allows himself plenty of delectable musical allusions to that era, notable in a riotous silent-movie cop-chase sequence and a Gershwin-ed up number for the American art collector Pamela Golden, sung with great panache by Annabel Omole. One of the greatest achievements of the piece is to provide so many different and individually rewarding roles, from Mr Pidgeon (Lucy Bradley) the bank manager with his troupe of head-bobbing, wing-shrugging junior Pidgeons, to Charlie and Walter (Olivia Hugh-Jones and Meg Griffiths), the shrewdly observant window cleaners. There was also a rather fine turn from Izzy Cullinan as a machinating wicked cousin.
Everything was kept moving along at a brisk and lively pace by both the music director Philip Sunderland and the stage director William Relton; and there were cleverly evocative designs by Neil Irish with an overflowing fancy dress box of costumes by Caroline Bronwen Hughes. Economic downturns are endured and triumphed over, a scarf turns out to be endowed with magical properties, children are abandoned and maltreated, and the house is saved from demolition at the 11th hour. Depicting a time of enormous change and upheaval, the opera reflects on those themes and is unafraid to confront their darker aspects. When the children’s parents return to rescue them in the nick of time, there is no glibly happy ending. Only the youngest children can forget their earlier neglect and welcome them home with unequivocal delight. For the older ones, memories and misery endured are not so easily dismissed.
Last year saw the 40th anniversary of the marvellous W11 Opera, which performs yearly with scores of young people in the cast, and the company’s 30th new commission was Original Features, provided by Julian Grant and Christina Jones, writers of the very successful Shadowtracks of 2007. The story followed the fortunes of a London house, given by its owner to a struggling artist with the advice to ‘Follow your dreams’. These take him to America, though his seven children remain behind and fall victim to an evil aunt, who forges some deeds to sell and demolish the house. She is, naturally, thwarted.
A jarring, oddly 1980s note was sounded by the foregrounding of the power of money. And the rather gloomy, episodic story was only sporadically brought to life by Grant’s score, sounding earthbound and a bit dark-hued; W11’s greatest successes, I think, have come with their most demanding works, and this, with its unisons and repeats, was not one of the more sophisticated operas they’ve taken on. It was still way better than most contemporary fare one sees but I itched for greater ambition. There were some nice touches: Hogarthian servants coming alive from a portrait to function as chorus, touches of fantasy in the auction scene (with hilarious groups of flappers and psychics) culminating in a satisfying ensemble, an injection of real sass with the American heiress played by Annabel Omole.
Director William Relton manoeuvred his 80 performers round the stage with logistical flair, managing to introduce a fair amount of physical comedy and movement while he was at it. These were the best scenes, as Grant let himself go on a variety of pastiches while Relton and movement director Maggie Rawlinson performed wonders. Philip Sunderland undertook the hair-raising task of keeping it all together musically, with a hard-working eight-piece orchestra.
Thoroughly Modern Milly
City gents, women racers, flappers, psychics, bankers, agents, reporters, Charlie Chaplins and even pigeons all appear as characters in the latest W11 Children’s Opera production, ‘Original Features’. This year this young but exceptional opera company take on a specially commissioned piece, with music by Julian Grant and libretto by Christina Jones celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary.
Read the full review on here.
Hammersmith & Fulham chronicle, December 2011
Eve Best is keen to talk about a little-known organisation called W11 Opera for Young People which launched her on the stage a generation ago and of which she is now a patron.
Read the full article on The Hill website.