Turnage’s New Opera for Children Skilfully Avoids Condescension

01/04/2018

Turnage, Coraline: Soloists, Britten Sinfonia / Sian Edwards (conductor). Barbican Theatre, London, 31.3.2018. (MB)

Kitty Whately (Other Mother), Alexander Robin Baker (Other Father) & Mary Bevan (Coraline)
© Stephen Cummiskey

Cast:

Coraline – Mary Bevan
Mother, Other Mother – Kitty Whately
Father, Other Father – Alexander Robin Baker
Miss Spink, Ghost Child 1 – Gillian Keith
Miss Forcible – Frances McCafferty
Mr Bobo, Ghost Child 2 – Harry Nicoll
Ghost Child 3 – Dominic Sedgwick

Production:

Aletta Collins (director)
Giles Cadle (set designs)
Gabrielle Dalton (costumes)
Matt Haskins (lighting)
Richard Wiseman, David Bruitland (magic consultants)

This was not quite the premiere: that had fallen two nights previously. In many ways, though, I was very happy to be there for a more ‘ordinary’ performance: as it happened, a Saturday matinee. For one thing, it was good to have a sense of how children received Mark-Anthony Turnage’s fourth opera, expressly written for children, Coraline, and presented at the Barbican by the Royal Opera. I was charmed, for instance, to hear in the bar beforehand, an adult telling a child, perhaps his own, to remember that, ‘in the opera, we listen; we don’t sing along.’ Whatever the rights and wrongs of that, to sense a somewhat different audience excited about the prospect of a magical theatrical occasion, rather than to hear Soprano X, in order to complain that it was not Soprano Y, was refreshing enough.

Still more, perhaps, was the behaviour of the audience, far better than that of the entitled bunches who often fill our opera houses. They were not silent, but when the occasional question was heard from another row, it was pertinent and genuinely added to the experience. There was certainly none of the idle chatter that so often detracts from a performance. That immediately leads to the caveat that this was not necessarily intended for me at all: again a salutary lesson. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the piece and found the objections I came up with on behalf of a young audience – was it perhaps a little too long? – apparently confounded. There was certainly no sign of such. We do well not to speak on behalf of others, especially when they are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves.

The opera is based upon a children’s novella by Neil Gaiman, converted into an opera libretto by Rory Mullarkey. I suspect the original and various adaptations – film, musical, comic book, video game – will have been familiar to a good few of various ages in the audience. Not to me, however, so I shall have to refrain from comparisons. One of the things that struck me about the story as we encountered it here, however, is how much it had in common with other children’s story tropes – nothing wrong with that, for what piece of literature or theatre is unconnected to anything else? – and yet also how one, or at least I, could appreciate it for itself. Dissatisfaction with the mundanity of home and parents, escape to an alternative life and ‘reality’ that promise everything and are thus clearly too good to be true, and a renewed appreciation for what one has, allied to an overcoming of personal fears, stand at the heart of the story. But so do ‘incidentals’: curious neighbours, fun machines, body parts that operate on their own, and so on. A world that is both close to ours and yet is not is created; an audience experiences that creation and even, to a certain extent, reflects upon it. Drama has always done that, and always will. The devil tends to be in the detail, and here the detail seems to me good.

This is also opera, of course. Turnage, operating within a broadly post-Stravinskian sound- and rhythm-world, generally tonal, but not in any reactionary sense, gives no sense of condescending to his audience. Indeed, like many composers, he seems perhaps to be liberated by the particular requirements of the commission. (You may wish for everything in the world, as the story tells us, but you do not necessarily want it; nor will you necessarily get it.) Typical, yet far from stereotypical, dance rhythms, propel an action that is not merely of the stage; so, too, do different instrumental combinations and colours, different harmonies, different tonal mises-en-scène, if you like. This is not a score of the complexity of Moses und Aron, but it is not trying to be, nor is there any reason why it should be. After all, its subject matter is entirely different. It steers away from the artifice of much opera; word-setting is rarely melismatic, although nor is it always syllabic. Perhaps that is no bad thing for children. Whether or not, however, they would have had a ‘problem’, with something with which they suspect we might, that does not in itself dictate how a composer should write. The history of opera, after all, is littered, often productively, with aesthetic debates, even wars, in which composers, librettists, impresarios, performers, audiences, theorists, and others have triumphed on both, or many, sides. Such debates will often stimulate; they will never, however, offer more than a provisional word on anything. Ask Richard Strauss.

With a splendid cast such as this – all fine actors as well as fine singers, an ensemble in the very best sense – combined with a fine orchestra and conductor, musical magic will nearly always have opportunity to emerge: which I distinctly had the sense it did for many in the audience, not all of them young. If I do not dwell on the performances as such here, it is not intended as any disrespect; all were first-rate. But I think it is sometimes, perhaps especially in a ‘children’s opera’, a good idea to step back and to ask other questions too.

How, in any case, could anyone truly dislike a show boasting a couple of ‘magic consultants’? A serious point here, though: this, I think, would really have made a good introduction to many children – perhaps not just to children – to the magic of the theatre. (Again, I emphasise the caveat that, as a non-child, or at least far-too-overgrown child, I may not be the best placed to see.) There are plenty of other options, available, of course, but another one does no harm, indeed does good. Aletta Collins’s staging does not shy away from showing that this is theatre, not television, not film: we see what theatre can suggest, whereas more realistic media will often (not always, I know) will find themselves merely portraying. Coraline walks to another door in the building, and we see the set move around: no big deal for us, nor perhaps for the children, but who knows? Lighting and costumes likewise take part in a degree of play between the realistic and something else. Moreover, I heard, in the row behind me, an adult explaining at the curtain call, how it was that there were fewer people on stage than there had been characters. The child seemed both to understand and to sense some of that magic we can all too readily for granted. Need it have been an opera, as I have heard some ask? Maybe not. But why should it not have been? And what might come next? It is not always ‘about us’. And perhaps we too have fears to overcome in terms of surrender to the theatre, to opera, to art.

Mark Berry

For more about Coraline at the Barbican click here.

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