Saturday, 5 September 2020

Children can do so much more than you think: Susan Moore, artistic director of W11 Opera on challenging young performers to produce an opera under lockdown

W11 Opera - Jukebox

W11 Opera will be 50 next year, and rightly celebrating 50 years of presenting opera for and with children, including an impressive range of commissions. This year's opera, its 49 production, was going to be a revival of one of those past commissions, but the present crisis has rather changed plans. Instead, for 2020 W11 Opera will be offering a production like no other. Jukebox will be both a celebration of the company's past operas and a challenge to the young performers, to produce an opera on-line during lock down. I chatted to Susan Moore, the company's artistic director about their plans and how they are going to achieve them.

The 2020 production Jukebox has a script which Susan has written and will use musical material from previous productions and the resulting film will consist of a mixture of songs and dialogue. The songs will be self-recorded by the performers, whilst the dialogue will have illustrations by Chris Glynn. Susan's script brings back the characters from the previous operas and the idea was not to have simply a filmed opera but to take advantage of the on-line medium and to see what is possible. 

Hence, involving illustrator Chris Glynn; Susan first came across Chris at Snape Maltings where she was doing a course, and he was illustrating. For the opera he will be branching out into animation as well. Part of the idea is to expose the young people to different kinds of creativity.

Timothy Kraemer: Ulysses & the Wooden Horse - W11 Opera in 1987
Timothy Kraemer: Ulysses & the Wooden Horse - W11 Opera in 1987

The music comes from ten operas by eight composer/librettist partnerships from the past 30 or so years: Timothy Kraemer (Ulysses & the Wooden Horse, 1987), Russell Hepplewhite and Helen Eastman (The Price 2016), John Barber and Hazel Gould (Eliza & the Swans 2015), Stuart Hancock and Donald Sturrock (The Cutlass Crew 2017), Julian Grant and Christina Jones (Original Features, 2011 and Shadowtracks, 2007), Graham Preskett and John Kane (Flying High, 2001 and ANTiphony, 1994), Cecilia McDowall and Christie Dickason (Deep Waters, 2000). Guy Dagul and Jane Asperling (Game Over, 2003). [See my review of Russell Hepplewhite and Helen Eastman's The Price, and my interview with Stuart Hancock, composer of Cutlass Crew.]

Though they have mined their back catalogue for the music, the company's archive was closed and so that has involved quite a bit of scrabbling around to find the music. Susan's association with the company goes back five years, so she luckily had material from this period. When it came to selecting the exact material, Susan describes it as finding something that worked and taking strong numbers from each of the previous operas. The final film will be a substantial piece of work, with around 37 minutes of music expanding to around 50 to 55 minutes including dialogue.

W11 Opera has never been afraid of complexity in the pieces that it commissioned, so that meant that there was a log of juicy material, including one character being burned at the stake. This also means that there is substance to the material which gives the creative team a lot that they can talk to the cast about. 

They will have a maximum of 54 children involved, and there still some places left; when I chatted to Susan they were just opening the process up to people outside their regular company and there are bursary places available. They are aware that taking part might be a challenge for some children with limited space at home or access to WiFi. The company relies, each year, on the influx of new nine-year-olds many of whom stay and become the staple members of the company for future years.

Graham Preskett & John Kane: Antiphony - W11 Opera in 1994
Graham Preskett & John Kane: Antiphony - W11 Opera in 1994

Luckily, Susan has already been involved in a similar type of on-line project because earlier this year she was working on a musical project with Hackney Music Development Trust when the crisis forced them to go on-line about a third of the way through the rehearsal period. The result was a very quick learning curve, but Susan found that quite often she had to 'go with her gut' and base her ideas on what works in the rehearsal studio. The Hackney project having to transition from the rehearsal studio to on-line has given her a chance to try things out.

The experience has enabled her to develop a formula which will be used for W11 Opera's on-line rehearsal sessions, this involves creating a pre-video which explains that they are doing for that session and providing some background, then providing examples, then the live Zoom sessions. The children have become used to the discipline of using Zoom, the need to keep muting and unmuting, but the trick is to be able to generate enthusiasm. 

Different children approach on-line sessions differently, some will look at the video before the live Zoom session, whilst others will come to the session and only look at the video afterwards, and others will only connect with aspects. But then, that is just like the real rehearsal studio as children react differently. You just need to make a connection with each of the children, but Susan admits that she needs to be realistic. 

There is the need to be aware of the children's age range (from nine to eighteen) so that you have to keep the nine-year-olds as interested and involved as the eighteen-year olds. This means making sure that no-one is overburdened, but there is enough material that they can learn things and grow. As with much else, it is about balance.

Russell Hepplewhite & Helen Eastman: The Price - W11 Opera in 2016
Russell Hepplewhite & Helen Eastman: The Price - W11 Opera in 2016

The team also needs to be aware of the children's mental health, and sensitive to the other pressures on them such as the pressure of doing schoolwork on-line or simply being scared of becoming ill. And Susan has had to  create a rehearsal schedule which is balanced, to make sure that the children are not being too pressured.

They will be recording each Zoom session, and Susan will then edit the results into a film (editing is something she has had to teach herself this Summer) which the children can see, something to give them a positive result. Also, as the cast is smaller than usual, they will be offering on-line masterclasses and one-to-one sessions.

Every couple of weeks there will be a deadline for a couple of pieces, and then the whole cast will watch the rough-cuts of these together as a group. This will give the children a chance to see how the piece is developing, and also allow them to give their feedback.  

The big challenge of course is that it is not possible to have group singing on Zoom (the electronic delay makes this impossible), and so this is work that the children will have to do on their own. Instead, the creative team are creating a whole catalogue of material for them, to make it unintimidating and fun. To a certain extent they will have to see what works, after all as Susan points out, Zoom was designed for meetings, not for opera rehearsals so they are pushing the technology to its limit.

Talking to Susan before rehearsals started, she admits that she is both scared and excited, and has moments when she thinks, is it all mad?

Stuart Hancock & Donald Sturrock: The Cutlass Crew - W11 Opera in 2017
Stuart Hancock & Donald Sturrock: The Cutlass Crew - W11 Opera in 2017

But being on-line does have advantages as well, they do not have the complex logistics of dealing with a big cast in the theatre with the requirements of costume changes. So that Susan can have everyone singing in a chorus with no worries about some needing to be off-stage for costume changes! And as they are working with a smaller cast, there will be more for each individual to do.

Working on-line also alters the balance of personalities in a rehearsal. In the rehearsal studio, the children who are the loudest often get all the attention, but during Zoom sessions the quieter ones often come out of the woodwork. So, Susan finds it interesting to see who thrives on-line.

As next year is the company's 50th anniversary, Susan would love to do a new commission but that depends on how the crisis plays out. At the moment, they are moving ahead as if they will be live on stage next year, but if they have to go on-line then they now have a model.

There is also the issue of funding, and as with many other arts organisations the company is fighting for survival. The company has always been very dependent on volunteers, but with lockdown families are coping with the demands of looking after children at home, and doing home-schooling. The company's usual 15 freelance professionals are down to six this year, and they are trying to make a sustainable model but the finance is tricky.

The final film will be launched at an event for cast, families, composers and librettists on Sunday 13 December 2020. But because the finished product is a film, rather than a stage production limited to one weekend in December, it means that in the New Year the creative team can continue going to schools, doing workshops (either in person or on-line), and show the film. So the film will become a tool for outreach.

Julian Grant and Christina Jones: Shadowtracks - W11 Opera in 2018
 Julian Grant and Christina Jones: Shadowtracks - W11 Opera in 2018

Partly as a result of doing research for selecting the music from past shows, Susan has been doing some digging into the company's past. Currently, shows are performed at the POSK Theatre in Hammersmith, but in the early days they were in a church hall. The fathers built the sets and the mothers looked after the children. But the results were often jaw-dropping, with impressive sets and costumes. This is something that continues, and Susan comments that when dubious teenagers see the sets and costumes, with the requisite wow factor, they really get it.

The company is unusual in that it works with an entirely youthful cast; most such companies use a model which involves a couple of professional singers on stage (as Britten did in his opera Noyes Fludde). But at W11 Opera performances there are no adults on stage, the young performers are entirely relying on themselves; the director has to hand the show over to the children. And the performers are just normal children, everyone is welcome and if you audition then you are in the company. Susan comments that children can do so much more than you think.

She points out that opera is often considered a dirty word and that 'children won't like opera', but usually it is a case that the children don't know what opera is and it is the adults who have more barriers. W11 Opera always makes sure that there is something in the piece they are performing which speaks to the children, like swashbuckling female pirates!


W11 Opera cast members perform self-recorded song from 1987 commissioned opera Ulysses and the Wood Horse by Timothy Kraemer. Recorded as part of the company's online 'picnic' to launch the 2020 online season. This will be one of the songs included in the 2020 production, Jukebox.

W11 Opera's 49th production Jukebox,  features a script by Susan Moore with music drawn from the following shows:

Timothy Kraemer (Ulysses & the Wooden Horse), Russell Hepplewhite & Helen Eastman (The Price), John Barber & Hazel Gould (Eliza & the Swans), Stuart Hancock & Donald Sturrock (Cutlass Crew), Julian Grant & Christina Jones (Original Features & Shadowtracks), Graham Preskett & John Kane (Flying High & ANTiphony), Cecilia McDowall & Christie Dickason (Deep Waters). Guy Dagul & Jane Asperling (Game Over).

Full details from the company's website.

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