Tuesday 13 July 2021

Seeking new grounds at Waterperry Opera Festival with their production Hansel and Gretel

Waterperry Opera Festival runs from 12 to 21 August 2021 at Waterperry Gardens in Oxfordshire. In this Guest Posting from the team at the festival, they explain how this year the festival team is working to welcome families and members of the deaf and hard of hearing community. 

Peter Rabbit's Musical Adventures at the 2019 Waterperry Opera Festival (Photo Robert Workman)
Peter Rabbit's Musical Adventures at the 2019 Waterperry Opera Festival (Photo Robert Workman)

As an organisation, Waterperry Opera Festival is constantly seeking to explore new, innovative ways to engage with, produce, and perform opera, with the goal of making it relevant and accessible to diverse and varied audiences. Showcasing this is their family-friendly production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel.

Their aim with this production is to produce high-quality opera in a bilingual format for Deaf, Hard of Hearing and Hearing audiences of all ages and backgrounds; by combining the visual storytelling of  British Sign Language (BSL) with the musical and dramatic world of Humperdinck's classic opera.

This will be achieved with the assistance of Paul Whittaker OBE, a renowned deaf musician and performer. Waterperry Opera Festival is thrilled to have this opportunity and cannot wait to share this experience with groups of friends and/or the whole family this summer.

To tell you a little more about this and why it is important to include members of the Deaf and Hard of Hearing community in our artform here are some words from Paul on the subject:

"l was born Deaf so have never heard a full piano keyboard, never heard birds sing, or been able to listen to the things that hearing people take for granted. That doesn’t actually bother me as I’ve discovered my own way of ‘hearing’ and understanding music; it’s not better or worse than that of a hearing person, it’s just different". 

"My first signed event was with English Northern Philharmonia (as the Orchestra of Opera North used to be called) back in 1991 when Richard Stilgoe joined them for a performance of [Prokofiev's] Peter and the Wolf. From there I started doing a lot of musical theatre work, being the first person to sign Joseph [and the Technicolour Dreamcoat], Les Mis[erables], and many other shows. I also began working for Opera North, which is now the only company I regularly work for.".

"I signed [Humperdinck's] Hansel and Gretel for Opera North a few years ago so was very excited when Waterperry contacted me about their idea of having fully-integrated BSL in all their performances of the piece. It’s actually the first time I’ve done an integrated show so it will be a very different experience from just standing at the side of the stage. I’ll need to be much more aware of where all the performers are, as well as keeping an eye on the conductor". 

"The team at Waterperry are equally excited about these signed performances and I know they have been brushing up on some deaf awareness and BSL. It’s so important that Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing people are made to feel welcome and valued in the arts world, yet so few organisations really go beyond a fairly tokenistic provision. There needs to be far more engagement with everyone, so that access moves beyond mere box-ticking. There have been some encouraging signs of inclusion during lockdown and I just hope that other companies follow the example of Waterperry as we begin to resurrect live arts in this country".

Working alongside Paul will be Rebecca Meltzer, director of Hansel and Gretel, who has also added her thoughts and feelings on the process of developing this opera: 

"Whilst it is becoming more common for opera companies to include signed performances in their run of a show, I believe it is rare to have an operatic production where BSL is fully integrated into the life of the show".

"When it comes to embarking on creating a show which integrates BSL, I start by acknowledging the need for collaboration, and most importantly, making space for the Deaf performers present in the room to express themselves creatively and have a voice. We are so lucky to be working with Paul, who's in-depth knowledge and understanding of this work will enable us to explore fully the relationship between the complementary elements at play on stage. With storytelling at the heart of the process, and the need for a clear and engaging method of communication with our audience, I am confident that one step at a time, we will discover our own way of performing as a true ensemble cast"

"I think it paramount that this not be a 'one off' attempt at making our work as an organisation more inclusive, but an approach that remains at the heart of what we do as a festival. I envisage that everything that we encounter and learn through this process will inform our attitude to all our future work".

Hansel and Gretel will be performing on the 19, 20 and 21 August 2021 at 2pm and 5pm. Prior to the performances, there will be a free signed singing/props-making workshop exploring themes and characters from the opera.

The Quiet Garden at Waterperry Gardens
The Quiet Garden at Waterperry Gardens

Waterperry Opera Festival promises to captivate all who attend these performances with their immersive story-telling, relaxed atmosphere, and magical music-making, whether a child or just a child-at-heart. Perfectly suited for young audiences as an introduction  to classical music.

For more information and to book tickets to see Hansel and Gretel see the festival website

Waterperry Opera Festival | 12th - 21st August 2021 - www.waterperryoperafestival.co.uk

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