United Kingdom Oliver Rudland, The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark: Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge, 26.11.2011 (KA)
‘What’s opera? – It’s where fat ladies scream very loudly!’ Whilst not, perhaps, a description of opera that music lovers (still less opera aficionados) would willingly tolerate, this is still a powerful image drawn on by the unconvinced in anti-operatic polemics. Along with this there’s ‘you can’t hear the words,’ and perhaps even ‘opera is for the elite.’ Whilst this latter has sometimes been true, it most certainly wasn’t here. Oliver Rudland’s new children’s opera The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark, complete with choirs of recorders and concluding with a congregational song, was a celebration of community involvement, written for children to perform to other children – and, of course, their parents!
Cambridge’s university church was transformed into a moon- and star-lit forest, home of the nervous owlet Plop and family: characters drawn from Jill Tomlinson’s enchanting and eternally relevant children’s story. Through play and talk with a group of (somewhat braver) cub scouts, Plop learns that the dark can be exciting and even fun. From the start then The Owl treats subject matter that has children’s common experiences and concerns at its heart. Moreover, following Britten’s example (Let’s Make an Opera, Noye’s Fludde), Rudland draws on skills that children already have. As any parent will know, recorders make brilliant shrieks and whoops, here harnessed to provide the night-time sounds of the owl-infested forest. Then there was the campfire song ‘London’s burning,’ sung as a round by all 35-odd children. Here Rudland’s orchestration began by delicately highlighting the quartal nature of the harmony (think of the opening phrase ‘London’s burning…’ and then put that interval underneath the tune, where it provides a unusual bass) whilst subsequently providing a lovely diatonic wash around the continuing round.
Beyond these shared skills Rudland also exploited the particular talents of 10-year old Camille Orwin, the delightful Plop, and of Benjamin Somers-Heslam, who played the bugle both during musical numbers and to rally together the cub scouts. It was a mark of Rudland’s sensitivity and economy that one never minded that the bugle only played two Cs and a G, and this was characteristic of the whole piece: involving children but never patronising them. Another group song, ‘Fireworks go whoosh!’ was clearly loved by the children (especially when they got to shout the last word, ‘fireworks go BANG!’) at the same time as stretching their vocal and aural skills. (Technically, the opening melody moved from a chord of C through a last inversion C# major 7th chord to an augmented 6th chord, before modulating to the flattened supertonic. That is to say, not easy.) Such music showed excellent judgement of children’s capabilities whilst never being limited to what might in other hands remain in the realm of the boringly safe. This approach extended to the orchestration, where a core of practical strings and piano – sometimes a little too much piano? – was enhanced by a feast of colourful percussion and some inspirational recorder playing by the young professional Robert de Bree.
Caught up in the evening’s flow one followed the story with delight, notwithstanding minor concerns about dramatic pacing. The music’s various strands – the more traditionally operatic world of mother and father owl, and the often humorous spoken world of the scouts, with Plop flitting between the two – seemed slightly at odds with each other on occasion. Whilst fitting that the newly-fearless Plop only sang at the opera’s close, singing earlier on could have facilitated a rapprochement between these worlds. However, this aside, following the rousing congregational ‘Kumbaya’ which went much of the way towards a drawing together of strands, the applause was rapturous.
So to return to our opening vision of opera, which actually sprang from the mouth of one of the young cast, before rehearsals began: which of these clichés remained true? Well, there was certainly no screaming, and the milieu was far from haughtily exclusive. Not every word might have been audible, but then… this was opera, after all.