The birth of a new opera: Children know the score when it comes to songs

In his latest dispatch, Michael Volpe reveals how music is crucial to Alice

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The Independent Culture

Is it all going too well? Unfettered progress always puts us on our guard and in a season that includes seven productions, when calamity chooses to stomp through a production, its reverberations extend well beyond the specific show it visits. If, as has happened, we lose a singer for a main stage production to illness, the process of correcting the problem affects everything. We only have so many pairs of hands so casting stutters, meetings get delayed and things look increasingly “tight”. But on the perverse theatrical road, we draw comfort from the bumps. Opera management is not a job upon which lives depend.

We don't charge into burning buildings, fix the tiny hearts of infants or fly 300 people safely through a storm. When my mother told me to get a proper job, I knew what she meant. But it is fair to say that your average heart surgeon needn't worry about critics and audience reaction (admittedly, a dead patient isn't a terrific outcome but you take my point). Art is never neutral, is it? Or at least it shouldn't be and the strength of feeling and the variety of opinion among audiences tells you that there are thousands of ways to mess something up. Even when you haven't. Alice, the family opera we commissioned for this summer, is coming to a critical phase and when tickets go on sale soon, there will be no turning back, save for a very public reversal.

Things are still being put right by composer Will Todd and while last month's recording session was a success, there were twists and turns as musicians pointed out difficulties in the score. I took the recording home to play to my four-year-old daughter, Fiora, who listened for a minute, proclaimed it “OK” and demanded to be allowed to continue watching The Incredibles without further interruption. A shiver of doubt passed through me but then I recalled that “OK” was all Tchaikovsky got after she had sat through Onegin in the summer.

We also played the recording to a room full of donors and told them that their generosity over many years had brought us to this point, had given us the confidence to take on the challenge and thus they needed to give us even more money now. They must all groan when they discover I will be at the same event as them, shaking my bucket, the operatic equivalent of a chugger on Kensington High Street. The song is now out on iTunes and within a day had leapt to No 6 in the classical charts.

Getting the music right is part one; part two is the less scientific production process, the hopefully gleaming bodywork that surrounds the meticulously crafted engine of the score. And let me tell you, there is no less an intensity of concern on account of our primary audience being children either, since they know a wrong 'un when they see it.

Director Martin Duncan holds the chalice in this regard, its toxicity as yet undetermined. He is losing sleep over it which, for comparison, he didn't suffer when he directed La Forza del Destino for us. “In my career, I have written, directed and performed for children and believe me, you can't get away with anything,” he says, not even trying to disguise the thousand-yard stare.

“If they find something funny, they'll laugh, if they are bored, they'll shuffle around, if they want a pee, they'll walk out. But if they are truly engaged, you can hear a pin drop. You always know exactly where you are with an audience of children.” Which is a good thing, right? Martin groans, takes a healthy glug of his Martini and says, “No. It's bloody terrifying.”

Michael Volpe is general manager of Opera Holland Park