Founder’s letter – Serena Hughes

40 Years Ago: How the W11 Children’s Opera Began

One thing tends to lead to another. It is a strange thought that, if the music master at our children’s school had not been an alcoholic, there would have been no W11 Opera. Because of that, music in the school was at a standstill and there was no school orchestra. This shocking fact inspired two mothers and myself – all string players – to start one in W11. I asked a young musician friend of ours, Nicholas Kraemer, to conduct it and in autumn 1970 we launched off, with a motley crew of young string players and lots of enthusiasm.

Nicholas was so pleased that everyone bothered to turn up each week, that the parts were ready on the stands and that the mothers helped to organise (unlike his previous experience) that he asked me whether I would organise a children’s opera. On impulse I said “Yes, if it’s Benjamin Britten’s ‘Noye’s Fludde’,” having no idea what a vast enterprise it would prove to be.

Britten had scored it for a young string orchestra with a professional string quartet, percussion, trumpets, handbells, tea cups, 5 soloists,the Voice of God and approximately 80 animals to go into the Ark – some 100 children in all. Fortunately there was a lot of local enthusiasm, but also W11 had a high percentage of artists among the parents. There was very little cash and several of us had to dig into our pockets to help with wood and paint etc. Clothes were produced by some wizardesses, and fathers raided skips for materials for scenery, while Douglas Jessup ordered scaffolding from his friendly builder to make the stage. Animal heads were made from papier mache and chicken wire, with the ‘factory’ overseen by Gill Chambers, an utterly brilliant and resourceful designer living in our square, St James Gardens.

We put up a notice outside St James’ Church and on a September Monday evening, 100 children turned up. Nicholas took us through the opera, told the story and got everyone to sing the ‘Kyrie’. Next we had a meeting to organise the logistics, including dividing the animals into groups of about 10, each with an animal ‘mother’ to see whether they were dressed properly and even whether they were there! They also met in the house of their ‘group mother’.

Shortly before the dress rehearsal, the fathers spent one evening drinking beer, hammering and removing the phenomenally heavy front pews. When the children arrived for their first 
rehearsal on stage, they were amazed, excited and rearing to go. The only snag arrived on the day of the dress rehearsal when Mr Noah dropped out, having lost his voice through laryngitis, and had to be replaced.

Adrenalin was high for our Maiden Voyage as an Opera Company, on Saturday, Dec 9th. At the end of the final performance on the Sunday there were resounding cheers from everyone, including the small performers who rushed back up the aisle wearing their animal heads. Our 11 year old daughter, after she had processed down the aisle to the ‘Kyrie’, exclaimed “Mum, why did everyone have their handkerchiefs out?’ It was indeed a very moving experience for young and old. At the cast party in the church after, I was standing there with mixed feelings of euphoria and huge relief when I felt a tug at my sleeve and found that I was surrounded by small people asking eagerly “What are we going to do next?”. None of us would have dreamt that the W11 Opera would have gone on to commission some 30 operas and still be going strong 40 years later.

At the start, we were exceedingly lucky to have two brilliant and ingeniously practical artists, Gill Chambers and Tim Gibbs. They launched us off with stunning designs, incredible animal heads including a lion made of river reeds and, for ‘Joseph, ’an authentic look, the result of hours spent in the Egyptian department of the British Museum. As the W11 opera continued it was fortunate in having a strong group of creative talents, all giving a huge amount of their time for free. In the music department, Timothy Kraemer composing three delightful operas, with Nicholas providing so many brilliant musicians (among them Evelyn Glennie and Simon Rattle), Royd and Felicity Barker coaching the chorus, and for design Jenny Lazell with all her helpers in the vast work entailed in providing such visual splendour, and Anne Sutton-Vane who, for years, ran the highly individual Box Office However above all, nothing could have happened without Nicholas. He worked, rehearsed and coaxed the children to sing better and better, conducted and inspired, all for love (no salary) for 18 years, without ever losing his sense of humour. He cajoled and inspired, and instilled in them a high standard of musicianship. They all loved him, and we all gave grateful thanks for the privilege of having him. My final thoughts are of all the gallant and long-suffering parents who stitched and cut and cooked and lent their houses, hung about waiting for rehearsals to end, practised the songs with their children and generally helped make us into a community.


Serena Hughes

Footnote : An independent view from Serena’s husband, Graham, in a 1999 letter to a founding supporter who had been discussing its origins.

“……The W11 Children’s Opera was entirely Serena’s personal vision. She interested her friends, recruited the singers and sometimes the players too, wrote dozens of letters, cooked mountains of food seemingly for everyone going to all the rehearsals, did the publicity, remembered the names and abilities of all concerned (who therefore loved her) continuing to run the whole thing for seven years, including playing the piano at all rehearsals. Without her there would be no W11 Opera today. Because Serena is very modest and very diplomatic, she always tries to minimise her own part in the early years . But I don’t think anyone else could have done what she did – her persistence and powers of personal persuasion galvanised local creative people and inspired children, while her own artistic instincts ensured a good spiritual content throughout……”