Friday, 21 March 2014

Borka, the Goose with No Feathers

English Touring Opera - Borka, the Goose with No Feathers
For the children's opera on its 2014 Spring Tour, English Touring Opera has turned to one of the most well-known and loved of all children's books, John Burningham's Borka which celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2013. The opera Borka, the Goose with No Feathers is designed for children aged 3 to 7 and ETO is touring the piece this spring alongside Tippett's King Priam, Britten's Paul Bunyan and Mozart's Magic Flute (in fact the four singers in Borka also appear in the other operas too). I caught one Borka's opening performances yesterday (20 March 2014) at Kew Gardens, an apt venue as part of the opera takes place there! With an audience of 110 five to seven year olds from local schools and 30 or so adults I watched the new piece not in a theatre, but in a flexible modern hall with the children sitting on the floor, the adults on chairs and the opera seemingly unpacked from boxes!

Borka is produced by the same team responsible for last year's Laika, the space dog; composer Russell Hepplewhite, writer and director Tim Yealland, designer Jude Munden. Hepplewhite conducted a small band (Philip Turbett, bassoon, John Rogers, viola and Jonathan Raper, percussion) and the opera was performed by four singers (Abigail Kelly, Susan Moore, Matt Ward and Maciek O'Shea) with actor Dafydd Hall Williams.


Jude Munden's imaginative set encompassed lovely patch-work back-drops on rollers to easily change the setting, which were combined with mobile props such as reeds (for the marshes) and a ship. The sets were changed by the cast, with much active participation from stage manager Will Hunter. Craft seemed to be a theme running through Munden's designs, not only the sewn back-drops but Borka has a knitted coat (to replace her feathers), and there was a whole knitting scene inviting participation from the children. Last year's opera Laika, the space dog which was for older children wove science into its plot. This year's piece is ostensibly about how it is OK to be different, the plot involves Borka's journey to acceptance as a goose with no feathers, but craft seems another interesting thread.

English Touring Opera: Borka the Goose with No Feathers - Abigail Kelly and Borka
Abigail Kelly and Borka
The piece started with the performers introducing themselves, and each instrument played a little in demonstration, and then we were off. There is spoken dialogue in the piece, but much of it is done as melodrama and there is an admirable amount of music in the whole work. This is very much an opera, not a musical or a play with songs. There were two songs for participation, complete with actions, and the children clearly enjoyed these. There were also a number of action pieces, ensembles which the singers involved the children. I have already mentioned the knitting scene, and before this there was one as Borka's parents make their nest and go finding different types of grasses. The admirable thing was how these were done through music.

Hepplewhite's music certainly does not talk (or sing) down to the children, this opera was no sequence of saccharine tunes. Instead Hepplewhite used short, highly characterful motifs, much imaginative instrumental work and a nice feel for pacing. He conducted with aplomb, keeping the piece flowing and coping well with the various 'vamp till ready' moments which are inevitable in such a highly active production.

It is a daunting task, holding the attention of over 100 six year olds for nearly an hour but Abigal Kelly, Susan Moore, Matt Ward, Maciek O'Shea and Dafydd Hall Williams did so, talking directly to the children without patronising them and holding their attention, thanks to Hepplewhite's characterful vocal writing, when performing. This was a highly active production, much running around and imitating of geese (inevitably) in a delightful fashion. Also, there was a great deal of imaginative puppetry, with the puppets manipulated by the cast so that they really did become characters, not only geese but also the ship's dog. Munden's designs for the puppets were a complete delight including such nice touches as the ship's captain and mate 'sitting' on the ship via pairs of small puppet legs attached to the actors' bodies.

The audience clearly found the piece amusing and attractive, and it certainly combined music and message into a form which introduced them to the irrational art of opera. Borka runs until 30 May, and there are some public performances check English Touring Opera's website for details.
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