The Children’s Opera Project
28 August - 29 August
St Paul’s Church was transformed into a children’s playroom and a wild forest full of dark creatures for The Children’s Opera titled O’Saci. The director Alexander Medem took his audience on a magical journey with the Orchestra of St Paul’s and The Syred Consort, conducted by Ben Palmer, performing Maurice Ravel’s little masterpiece L’Enfant et les Sortileges and a world premiere of new music theatre by Miguel Kersman.
MAURICE RAVEL, COMPOSER & L’Enfant et les Sortilèges
Maurice Ravel (1875 – 1937) was sent the libretto of this Opera ‘L’Enfant et les Sortilèges: Fantaisie lyrique en deux parties ‘ while he was serving with the French Army at the front in the First World War. The libretto had been written by the French novelist Colette as a scenario for a ballet.
This she had sent to the Director of the Opera in Paris who in turn sent it to Ravel. It was not until after the war that Ravel started to work at it in earnest and by that time the ballet scenario had become an opera.
The scene of the opera is set in a room of an old country house where a child is sitting at his lessons. He is bored and exasperated even though his mother comes in to reprimand him for his laziness. Losing his temper, he dashes about the room in a fit of destructive action. This scene is accompanied by loud and vigorous music.
From now on until the end of the opera the child learns the consequences of his orgy of destruction. Ravel uses a parody of American jazz, the fox trot, to evoke the hostility of the pieces of damaged furniture. Chairs and the mutilated clock, the teapot and cup, even the fire in the fireplace, rise up to punish him. His torn story book and arithmetic book have their revenge until the child sinks down exhausted.
He does not notice the black cat and the white cat emerging. They are hostile too but sing their famous love duet to each other with the cat words “Mi-inhou” and “Mornau”. The child follows them when they bound out into the moonlit garden.
Even in the garden the hostility towards the child grows. The tree, birds, frogs, squirrels, a bat and dragonfly all seek their revenge. They rush at the child and he is pushed into a corner of the stage, crying “Maman”. The animals then turn on each other in a frenzied fight.
Just then, the child binds up the paw of a wounded squirrel and the other animals exclaim in amazement at his kindly action. From then on they want to help him and try to imitate his cry of “Maman” as they lead him towards the house. The opera ends as the child confidently calls “Maman”.
This production, using a concert performance of the music and actors miming the story, is possibly very close to Ravel’s and Colette’s first conception of the work. As an operatic masterpiece it was neglected for many years because the interpreting of the stage directions was so difficult for the singers. This was surely the only reason for its lack of fame as a piece because the music itself is possibly the most complete Ravel ever wrote.
– Mary Gifford Brown (Aug 2009)
The Didier Puntos arrangement
This outstanding transcription of Ravel’s one-act opera L’enfant et les sortilèges was made in 1989 by Didier Puntos, shortly after his appointment to the staff of the Lyon Opera. Ravel’s original scoring calls for a massive orchestra of thirteen winds, eleven brass, timpani and percussion, celesta, harp, piano and a full string section. Puntos’ transcription reduces all this to just four players; flute, cello and piano four-hands. This new version has received well over 100 performances worldwide, bringing the opera within reach of many smaller companies and performing ensembles that would never have been able to afford a production with the full orchestra. What is particularly striking about the Puntos version is how little one loses of the original flavour; though the grander moments cannot possibly have the same impact, much of the opera is composed almost as chamber music, lending itself well to a transcription of this nature. As suggested in the score, most of the singers are allocated several roles. However, we have gone one step further and are covering the chorus parts and all twenty-one roles with just ten singers.
– Ben Palmer, Conductor & Musical Director (Aug 2009)
A Composer’s Note
Composing a piece for children has always been something very dear to me, and as it often happens, one just needs to pursue a project when the time, collaborating team, and circumstances feel right. Since I was a child growing up in Brazil I had been fascinated by tales, myths, and legends of the Brazilian folklore, and the Saci especially was one of my favorites. I remember listening to people in the country side speak into the evenings about the Saci and its many “mata” (woods) cousins… “mula sem cabeca, “yara”, etc. Brazil has so much magic, beauty and creative energy in its cultural and psychological fabric… As one can see, this project is therefore rather close to home and to my own childhood.
About a year and half ago I was introduced to Alexander Medem by Carolin Ratzinger, a graduate student from University of Vienna’s Musicology department who has been writing a thesis about my work. She asked me whether I would be interested in speaking with a young, emerging Director planning to remake the great Orfeo da Conceicao story, a thought which intrigued me…
When speaking with Alex, it became quickly clear this was someone with whom I would enjoy working. We were discussing ideas on how to approach such a project, since several existing versions of the Orpheus story, and, indeed the Brazilian version, are such wonderful masterpieces that perhaps it would be difficult adding anything to that universe. As we were talking about this ambitious idea, I mentioned aspects of the Brazilian folklore to Alex, such as the legend of the Saci, and he mentioned he would be working with a team in London to stage an evening of Children’s Opera, and from there the idea for this project was born… The circumstances, timing, and collaborating team somehow felt right from the outset.
Last April, 2009 I started to actually write the music, since the project was discussed more concretely around January of the same year. I still don’t know quite how, but the work was composed, and the performance score and parts edited for the conductor, and musicians in less than two months. Probably because I loved and enjoyed creating this work so much. In O Saci I quote themes or motifs I composed when I was in my teens, again because this is close to my own childhood… I didn’t plan anything and allowed the music to flow organically, knowing all along that the work would definitely sound rather “Brazilian”, in Portuguese one would say “sapeca” and “brejeiro”, (“fresh”, a “prankster”) qualities of the Saci character, and it would organically turn out to be an accessible piece which adults and children would be able to grasp and enjoy… nothing contrived or overly planned… making music to me is always a spontaneous affair.
The piece brings a range of emotions to the listener supporting a brief story I wrote, freely based on Brazilian folklore, added by a touch of British folklore flavour by colleague and writer Killian Heilsberg. The music should transport the listener to the Saci’s world, and the new place he discovers (Britain) through sound, and in synergy with the acting, dancing, and scenery the very talented Alex Medem and his production team are devising — I myself can’t wait to be there and just be part of the audience! I am thrilled to be collaborating with this team, the St. Paul’s Orchestra, The Iris Theatre and Actor’s Church in Covent Garden, conductor Ben Palmer, the Syred Consort and all actors and dances who are contributing their love and talents to this production – thank you all.
O Saci will be available to anyone, anywhere wishing to perform it free of any music licensing, rental, or publishing costs as long as such performances, whether as pure instrumental Chamber Music, or the acted theatrical version, are presented as a benefit to children or a child for any reason: To help a child or children in need which could be tuition for studies, food and medicine, a medical treatment, or just help when needed. It is a modest offering, but very heartfelt. Basically, this will be available as a royalty free work for anyone to perform or produce anywhere provided the goal is to help a child or children in need. A cost-free Licence will be available through Aurua Sounds, Ltd.
O Saci brings flavours of Brazil, a wonderful place with an amazingly original and beautiful people. Should Brazil, and only if, the country is actually able to still overcome its rather serious social problems, it could indeed be seen as “heaven on Earth” for years to come…
– Howard Loxton (British Theatre Guide)
Ravel’s fantasy opera presents a bored little boy who takes his frustrations out on the things around him only to have furniture, characters from the wallpaper, pets and trees turn on him until one kindly act reveals his basic humanity.
I enjoyed this version, performed by silent actor/dancers and sung by off-stage voices. Musically it is quite enchanting, beautifully played and sung in a reduced orchestration transcribed for four hands at the piano, a cello and a wind player on flute, alto flute and piccolo with only ten singers covering all the roles and chorus parts.
Colette originally intended her scenario for a ballet and the original 1925 Monte Carlo production, of course, had a considerable ballet element choreographed by Balanchine. There have been other entirely ballet versions, notably one by Jiri Kylian for Nederlands Dance Theatre. Medem and movemet director Shona Morris present objects and animals in human form – an arm angled like a spout to suggest a teapot, for instance. The movement and the mood are well matched to the music and one gets the gist of the story.
Sara Lazzaro’s petulant, leg-swinging Child is decidedly a little girl, though when she dons a cap her wide-eyed tomboy could be a real boy too; I’m sure all the children in the audience could identify. There is a suitable sinuous performance from Hesther Campbell’s White Cat, even though devoid of whiskers and flaunting baubles around a wrist she is definitively feline. Others perform the relatively simple choreography with a zest that matches the expressiveness of the singers.
The Ravel is followed by the world premier of O Saci a new piece by Miguel Kertsman which draws on a legend from Brazil, his birthplace, concerning a Saci, a spirit in a red hat who has the power to stir up the wind. He stirs things up a bit too much and gets blown to Britain into a deep blue pool where he meets Cai, a water spirit. She can produce rain and, with her rain and his wind to direct it, they put out a fire that threatens to consume a village. It is a little fairytale to show how things can be achieved by pulling together. It is nicely performed by Daniel Mutlow as the Saci, all bronzed torso flecked with gold leaf and a low slung sarong that wraps around one leg, and Naomi Reynolds’ Cai, blue eye-shadowed and balletic, in contrast to her agitated animals in the first work. Its most dramatic moment is when with a stage filling with red-glowing smoke the pair send their rain past three umbrellas to put out the offstage fire.
Some lovely music making from the singers of the Syred Consort and members of the Orchestra of St Paul’s under the direction of Ben Palmer makes this an enjoyable evening and colourful costumes, almost non-stop movement (no static arias in this show!) combine with the sincerity of the performers to hold the attention of the youngsters in the audience.
– Audience Club member
‘L’Enfant…’ happens to be my favourite piece of music and, had I not been a member I would not have bothered, having dismissed out of hand the idea of attempting to perform a work meant for a massive orchestra with four instrumentalists. But the incredible arrangement by Didier Puntos which includes all the original vocal parts was performed so well by The Syred Consort and the Orchestra of St. Paul’s that the idea of separate choreography acting out the story – as in the ballet that Colette originally meant it to be- was realised beautifully. The Iris Theatre were given plenty of opportunity for resourcefulness both in the range of fairy-tale characters to be portrayed (mostly fauna and furniture) and props (how do you animate an arm-chair?) . ‘O Saci’ the new work for the second half by Miguel Kertsman was delightful with subtle, eclectic and complex colour – supporting the vivid, stylised action of the Brazilian story on stage – balancing the evening well. The director, Alexander Medem, I’m sure realised his aim of contributing to the building of an opera audience for the future.
For Ravel: For Kertsman:
The Mother Chorus Sarah Borges
The White Cat Chorus Hester Campbell
L’Enfant Chorus Sara Lazzaro
School Teacher O Saci Daniel Mutlow
The Squirel Cai Naomi Reynolds
The Black Cat Chorus Nabil Stuart
La Bergère, La Chauve-souris & L’écureuil – Rosemary Galton
La Princesse, La Chouette & Une Pastourelle – Felicity Hayward
Le Feu, Le Rossignol – Sarah Moule
L’Enfant – Belinda Williams
Maman & La Tasse Chinoise – Katherine Nicholson
La Chatte, Un Pâtre & La Libellule – Amy Payne
La Rainette – Harvey Brink
La Théière & Le Petit Vieillard – Ben Byram-Wigfield
Le Chat & L’Horloge Comtoise – Edwin Mansfield
Le Fauteuil & Un Arbre – Antoine Salmon
Flute/Piccolo/Alto Flute – Simon Gilliver
Cello – Morwenna Del Mar
Piano – Waiyin Lee
Piano – Geoffrey Paterson
Producer – Daniel Winder
Director – Alexander Medem
Conductor & Musical Director – Ben Palmer
Movement Director – Shona Morris
Theatre Designer – Sarah Booth
Lighting Designer – Benjamin Polya
Assistant Director – Alice Knight
Theatre Design Concept – Thaddäus Stockert
Make-up Artist – Francesca Massariol
Additional Choreography – Hester Campbell
Stage Manager – Heather Rose
ASM – Kathryn Martin
ASM – Miriam Gosling
LX / Board Operator – Tom Wickens
Venue Administrator – Charles Grant