The birth of a new opera: How to keep the whole family in a fantasy world

In his latest dispatch, Michael Volpe ponders the harshest critics – children

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is one of seven operas being produced for the Opera Holland Park 2013 season but it is the only one that was born here. So while minuscule when compared to the Cecil B DeMille processions of Cavalleria Rusticana and I Gioielli della Madonna, Alice thus occupies a prominence in our thinking because only time will tell if it will be the first in a string of commissioned operas or the last (the intent is indubitably the former). Performing in a world premiere of a work also places added pressure on the singers and artists. Fflur Wyn will contend with countless mind's eye images of Alice when she delivers her first words to the opening audience and children, who will be in the majority, can be harsh, unequivocal critics.

We were in the studio this month to record “I Flew High in My Dreams”, one of Alice's signature arias. We seek opinion of almost everything we do in this game, even if we sometimes pretend we don't especially care for its colour nor listen to all of it, but none of us can deny it will be a seminal moment as the public lend us their ears. As possessive as we are prone to be of our work, there is always a chance others will disapprove, but we mustn't be caterpillars in our cocoon forever.

The recording session gave us a chance to hear the music with full orchestral accompaniment, revealing to us all the next layer of composer Will Todd's interpretation: meat-on-the-bones Alice adorned and bejewelled with strings and the Tweedledee of flute. Will had heard the plump fullness of his music in his head a thousand times but there was no hiding the reassuring thrill of the real thing. Gazing at the players through the control room glass, the OHP team were aware of the moment's significance.

We opted for the purple hat, embellished with rabbit's ears and harlequin patterns as the primary promotional image for the production – there is a full-colour version that stays the right side of champignon magiques. This is a family show, and while it is almost impossible –and not necessary – to eviscerate the story of its darker elements, we need not give a home to the constant theorising about pharmaceutically induced provenance. Unexpurgated family entertainment that satisfies everybody from child to parent, often for different reasons but always with a shared joy, can be a hard thing to find. Sometimes, it is just nice to make it happen that way.

We merged two characters this month; to excise a smaller role who has been just as lovingly rendered as any other, but who slows things down, only takes a bit of sideways thinking to reveal the benefits and remove the regret of the decision. Getting it right, especially the orchestration, won't cease until the first performance (fiddling with the fiddles as it were).

As March progresses, our anticipation of the season remains vivid but I struggle to switch between the dual psychologies of selling a family opera in a programme that includes sacrilegious theft, murder aplenty and suicide. One of the reasons we do shows like Alice is to introduce children and young people to the art form but as they make their way through the adult operatic landscape, they'll have a few shocks coming to them. That's opera for you, but on reflection, with Queens wanting to lop off heads and a myriad other wicked fairytales to draw upon, children might well be ready for anything.

Actually, compared to what we traditionally serve up to our kids, this opera is a walk in the park.

Michael Volpe is general manager of Opera Holland Park. Follow @mikeohp and @aliceoperaohp

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