There's not quite enough here for the kids in this sci-fi opera for ages fire-to-eight
Ulster writer and illustrator Oliver Jeffers is one of the most popular children’s authors working today: his series of short, sparsely told stories reveal the surreal and achingly poignant adventures of a boy and his animal companions. Each is beautifully illustrated in spare, colourful and wonky drawings.
It is, therefore, something of a challenge for composer Joanna Lee, librettist Rory Mullarkey and director Katie Mitchell to extrapolate such perfect simplicity into a 50-minute children’s opera for English National Opera. And despite many charming elements to sweet space odyssey ‘The Way Back Home’ – not least the gorgeous set by Vicki Mortimer and Molly Einchcomb – it is a shame that Mullarkey did not take more liberties with the narrative.
With such an earnest retelling, the only real laughs come courtesy of the flatulent kung-fu Penguin (amusingly physical actor Peter Hobday), showing that the young audience were crying out for more subversive drama.
It is a tricky business composing an opera for children – in this case five-to-eight year olds. Mitchell’s direction was fun – with characters and props amusingly whisked on and off – while surreal travel problems (to the Moon) were inventively solved. But surely a lighter more lyrical musical language would be more engaging for a young audience immersed in ultra-tonal Disney music. Lee’s through-composed score, however, is a modern, grown-up affair, overflowing with relentlessly quirky time signatures; never resting, though full of novel ideas such as vocal percussion.
The problem is that the children (and probably their parents) are not familiar with such a constantly challenging sound world and no doubt yearn for some light relief. The singers, too (mezzo Victoria Simmonds as the Boy, and soprano Aoife O’Sullivan as the Martian), while spot on vocal-wise are a bit too operatically grown up for the roles of a naïve boy and a stranded alien.
At the finale, when it snowed in the auditorium, the kids stopped fidgeting and went wild. The lesson? More interaction – surely children’s opera can be light and engaging without turning into panto.
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