One might wonder whether creating an opera for very young children is a good idea. It can be hard to follow at the best of times, even with surtitles, and kids aren’t known for their brilliant attention spans. Yet here, in the heart of sunny Central London at the Royal Opera House, it has been accomplished.
How the Whale Became (and Other Tales) is based on poet Ted Hughes’s collection of short stories, The Dreamfighter and Other Creation Tales, and has been adapted into this libretto by Edward Kemp. Both he and Director Natalie Abrahami pose the big questions in life to their young audience using a brilliantly fantastical world and inventive songs. Designer Tom Scutt, who won the WhatsonStage award for Best Set Designer 2013 for Constellations and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, has created something which resembles a junk yard: all recycled rubbish and compost heaps sprouting various fruit and veg. It looks chaotic but is a devastatingly brilliant visionary experience for all audience members (not just the under fives). A foreboding contraption at the heart of the stage looks like some sort of time-machine (excellent!) and as it produces such things as a glamorous polar bear and a rather camp, hyperactive peacock, there’s no room to be anything but dazzled.
The cast could all work for CITV, beaming wildly at the excitable kids and interacting whole-heartedly with them. Their turns as each animal in the show are inventive and often comical, sprouting heaps of laughter from everyone in the audience. Stand-outs include Welsh soprano Fflur Wyn, who makes her début with The Royal Opera singing and playing the roles of Girl, Polar Bear and Wild Cow, whilst tenor Andrew Dickinson also débuts as Boy and Wild Bull, and baritone James McOran-Campbell plays Mouse, Peacock and Leftover. All three look comfortable in their respective – if rather silly – roles and sing wonderfully. The rest of the cast also do a tremendous job.
How the Whale Became is unfortunately lacking in any storyline. Scenes and events appear to come from nowhere and it is exceptionally difficult to keep track of them, made all the more tricky by the fact it is an opera, and I found myself struggling to understand what the actors were singing, omitting even more structure. I suppose this show is designed for young people and looking around at their eager, happy faces I could see it has done its job. For the parents watching it, I’m not so sure, but presumably seeing such happiness in their children’s faces can only be a good thing. It’s aesthetically crazy, bright and exciting, so if you’re barely out of nappies or have kids, then go and see it – or if you’re looking to see your first opera and don’t want any drama, check it out!
How the Whale Became (and Other Tales) is playing at the Linbury Studio theatre in the Royal Opera House until 4 January 2014. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.
Image copyright ROH and Catherine Ashmore.