Thursday 24 January 2013

Laika the Spacedog

Laika the Space Dog
There are not many science based-operas, and certainly not ones which include equations and expect the audience to answer questions. Laika the Spacedog is a new opera for children with music by Russell Hepplewhite and words by Tim Yealland, which is being performed by English Touring Opera as part of their Spring tour. Directed by Tim Yealland and designed by Jude Munden, it uses a cast of four singers and four instrumentalists, plus a puppeteer manipulating the opera's title role, Laika herself. The opera's opening performances are at the Science Museum (all sold out, I gather) and I went along to the lunchtime performance yesterday (24 January) to join in the fun.

The audience consisted mainly of school parties of Primary School children, many of them wearing reflective jackets; but there was also a smattering of family groups. The school children had all studied the piece in advance; schools receive a Teachers' Pack with background information about the story, a history of the period and the space race, classroom activities and a CD of the participatory songs. The children clearly had all learned the songs and joined in enthusiastically. I was particularly taken with the mnemonic which helps you remember the order of the planets, Moscow's Very Expensive Metro Just Seems Useless Now.

Munden's designs were based on a group of cabinets, with a projector, turned into an apartment in Moscow, the park and various locations in the space centre.

The plot dealt with a young man, Mikhail (Stuart Haycock) who joins Korolev's (Piotr Lempa) ground breaking work at the Baikonur Cosmodrome, and send a dog into space. Mikhail is a dog lover and his mother (Lorna Bridge) has bought him a dog, Laika, though his drunken father (Piotr Lempa) won't have it in the house so they keep it in the park. It ends up, of course, with Laika being the dog sent into space and, at the very end, we all discover that she won't come back. The project had no ability at that time for re-entry. But rather than ending on this low note, it ends with a piece of fantasy with an animation created by Babis Alexiadis and children from Childs Hill Primary School with Laika meeting Armstrong when the walks on the moon.

The cast were all incredibly hard working, playing multiple roles, as well as doing the scene changes. Soprano Lorna Bridge even played the theremin, which added its eerie sound to some of the instrumental interludes. All four singers interacted with the audience, often solos were taken with the lights up, the cast walking into the audience. I was particularly taken with Susan Moore's bad tempered, dog-hating Russian scientist; her imperious instructions to stop, during the participatory activity, clearly went down well with the children.

Because Mikhail (Stuart Haycock) is joining the Cosmodrome, he has to pass a test, which is where the science questions came in. Also, when Laika was prepared for her space journey she had to be examined for pulse, respiration, temperature etc. All this involved the children, and they were, of course, especially delighted when Haycock inserted the thermometer, quite correctly, into the puppet dog's rectum.

But this was an opera, not a play with songs. Though there were spoken bits, the vast majority of the work was sung, with recitative and songs/arias. Hepplewhite wrote catchy tunes for the songs which everyone had to join in, but linked these to more complex music for the rest of the opera. His accompaniments were inventively attractive, with a nice rhythmic liveliness. The band, just clarinet, bassoon, cello and percussion were very hard working, with the percussionist playing a lot of vibraphone.

The star of the show had to be, of course, the title role. The puppet was brilliantly manipulated by Simon Iorio, who supplied the dog's barks as well, and Iorio had a brilliant way of slipping into the background so that you noticed the dog rather than its handler. He created a very real, appealing personality for the dog.

My only worry was the number and length of the scene changes, sometimes these seemed to be overly frequent and elaborate. Hepplewhite had provided 'vamp till ready' music to cover these, but I did wonder if the production should have been simpler. This may have been a deliberate policy, to give the audience something else to look at, but it did mean that a piece that should have lasted an hour, ran for rather more than that.

Afterwards there was a Q&A session and it was clear that the young audience had engaged not only with the piece, but with the idea that this was an opera. Hepplewhite's music hit just the right notes, being appealing and interesting without being overly complex. I look forward to hearing more of his music.

The opera is playing at a variety of locations, see the English Touring Opera website for details.

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