When W11 Opera started to involve schoolchildren in the pleasures of performing opera, its search for suitable vehicles soon led to the commissioning of works for young voices. Since 1971 it has reached an impressive total of 29; the latest, The Song of Rhiannon, composed by Mark Bowden to a libretto by Helen Cooper, is inspired by the drama of the mediaeval Welsh legends collected together in the Mabinogion . It tells of the curse laid on Rhiannon by her jilted suitor Gwawl when she abandons him to elope with Pwyll, and of the enchantments and transformations she and her family suffer before Gwawl relents. In addition to conjuring up the magic and mystery of these central events, Bowden’s score gives voice to choruses of warriors, flowers, gargoyles, blades of wheat, and grey and speckled mice – more than 70 singers, aged from 9 to 18, the younger ones grouped to swell the volume. With a preponderance of female voices, many of the male leads were sung by girls, notably well in the case of Flo Hare (Pryderi), Ariane L’Heveder (Pwyll/Llwyd) and Elizabeth Banes as a forceful Gwawl; Cheno Pinter was the willowy, blonde Rhiannon and Archie Young the personable Manawydan.
Good use was made of the Riverside space–the audience tiered on either side of a full width stage–by the director William Kerley, who manoeuvred his large forces smoothly; his handling of Rhiannon’s attendant birds was especially effective, as was the range of styles from mediaeval to modern in William Fricker’s costumes. Philip Colman, in his ninth year as music director was for the most part able to keep the balance between slender voices and his nine musicians playing at one end of the stage.
“CHORUS OF APPROVAL”
A unique and innovative company of young singers from Notting Hill in London commissions more new scores than some of the leading opera houses
There has been quite a fuss lately about For You, the new opera by Michael Berkeley and Ian McEwan that finished its tour of the country last week. The excitement was due not only to the august authorship of the piece but also because, well, it’s a new opera, and they don’t come along every day.
But in spite of the trumpetings by our national opera companies on the rare occasions a new show finally staggers to the stage, it might come as a surprise to hear that there’s a London company that over the past 38 years has commissioned and performed not five or 10 but 29 new works.
It’s called W11 Opera and the performers are children and young people aged from 11 to 18. The name, taken from the postcode of the London district of Notting Hill where it is based, might give the impression of some preening set-up full of Hugh Grant look-alikes. Clearly it doesn’t hurt to be based in a startlingly rich catchment area and have a rolling core of dedicated parents who donate money, time and various kinds of expertise to keep the show on the road, but this is more than an end-of-year jamboree for rich brats: the cast list contains large numbers of Clementines and Jessicas, true, but the company also has plenty of state-school children in its shows and an arrangement with the far-from-privileged Avondale Park Primary School to sponsor the participation of some of their pupils. The company has never received a penny of public funding; this year it is on stage at the Riverside Studios for five performances. Previous productions have had rave reviews from jaded critics whose idea of hell might well be a gang of kids performing contemporary opera.
“Every year, we look at our huge deficit and think, well, that was fun, but it’s time to stop,” says Lucy Le Fanu, who ran the company for 10 years, and remains inextricably involved. “But somehow things sort themselves out and we continue for another year.”
As with so many things in post-war musical culture, it was Benjamin Britten who, dismayed by the way that opera was (even more then than now) an occupation for the ageing wealthy, first had the idea of writing one to be performed by children, and it was the composer’s makeover of the Chester mystery play Noye’s Fludde, composed in 1957 and one of his most loveable works, that got W11 started. Local string teacher Serena Hughes longed to stage this piece – with its parts for 35 or more pairs of animals, with six main roles for children and a couple of adults – and asked a young conductor she worked with, Nicholas Kraemer, whether he would conduct it. Naturally they had no idea how much organisation it would eventually involve, but the opera was staged with great success in St James Norland Church.
Noye’s Fludde was just about the ideal W11 work, but there being no others readily available the company had to start commissioning if they were to repeat the success, so they asked Christopher Bowers-Broadbent, who played the organ in Noye’s Fludde, to write another, and he duly provided The Pied Piper for the 1972 performance. And so it has gone on: apart from a couple of years when they used an existing piece – including the inevitable Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream-coat – all the company’s shows have been world premières, including works by Stephen Oliver, Karl Jenkins and Michael Kamen. Jonathan Dove (composer of Pinocchio) would seem an obvious candidate, but prefers to write for adult voices.
“There’s no model for the perfect W11 opera;’ Lucy Le Fanu tells me, “they’ve been wildly various. When we commission, the brief is to provide a piece about 70 minutes long with about 10 main roles for children and chorus work for the rest.” I’ve seen only one of their performances, the 2003 Game Over by Guy Dagul, a soft-rock number not a million miles from early Lloyd Webber. “That was certainly at the less sophisticated end of our spectrum – we aim to introduce the performers to ideas of greater musical and rhythmic complexity. We don’t want to be putting on Grease, which is the best that most schools can manage.”
Nonetheless, Game Over made a highly impressive evening that treated many contemporary and timeless themes (the dilemmas raised by the solipsism of computer games, the vexed relationship of children and their parents) in a light-fingered but far from naive way.
The economics are daunting enough: the hire of a theatre, the fee for a professional director, designer, music director (for the past nine years Philip Colman of Trinity College), composer, librettist and orchestra comes to £60,000, of which less than half is covered by box office (tickets are only £15).
A couple of alumni of W11 – notably Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Eve Best – have gone on to make showbiz names for themselves. But the company doesn’t need that kind of justification. I know several directors who’ve worked there in recent years and, despite the alarming prospect of getting the show on stage with weekly rehearsals over only three months, they all seem to enjoy the challenge: “It’s unique and also great fun,” says Annilese Miskimmon, who directed last year’s show; this year’s director, Will Kerley (who, like Miskimmon, has had great success at Opera Holland Park up the road), echoes her: “It’s so refreshing to work with people who have no received idea of what opera is, haven’t learnt all the bad habits you find even in the colleges.”
This company, so different from anything in British opera, always produces something surprising and touching – and highly entertaining. Go and see for yourself.