All the right ingredients

Babette's Feast has the recipe to delight adults and children alike
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The Independent Culture

Few children would sit through a three-hour opera with their parents, so it's fortunate that the Royal Opera House's one-act Babette's Feast comes in at 75 minutes. The Irish composer John Browne was commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills to write the work, which opened at the Linbury Studio Theatre in 2002 and is being revived for the Christmas season.

Few children would sit through a three-hour opera with their parents, so it's fortunate that the Royal Opera House's one-act Babette's Feast comes in at 75 minutes. The Irish composer John Browne was commissioned by the Department for Education and Skills to write the work, which opened at the Linbury Studio Theatre in 2002 and is being revived for the Christmas season.

"Very few operas are suitable for family audiences and this is recognised as a gap in opera," Browne says. He adds that The Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel are among the few operas accessible to children.

Browne has led many educational projects in the past, for ROH, Opera North, English National Opera, the Royal Festival Hall and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields. In 1999, he worked with schoolchildren in London to create Separation: The Story of Bullman and the Moonsisters, which inaugurated the Linbury Theatre.

For Babette's Feast, Browne collaborated with the librettist Jane Buckler to come up with an idea that would entice family audiences and be suitable for children aged nine or more. They considered fables such as The Emperor's New Clothes before making a final decision.

Based on the short story by Isak Dinesen (made into a film in 1987), Babette's Feast is about two pious sisters living in an isolated village in Norway under the control of a strict, religious father. Then the mysterious Babette, a cook from Paris, arrives and creates a sumptuous feast that transforms the lives of all who eat it.

"It works because the themes and images cover a multitude of complex human issues. It works on so many different levels," Browne says. "In that respect, it is similar to a pantomime because we can set up a dynamic between the parents and children watching it at the same time." In the opera, the sisters are left motherless and Babette becomes a nurturing force. "The idea of redressing the balance between a mother and a father is also universal." The composing phase, which took Browne six months, was a solitary experience. "You have to keep an eye on the full canvas - it is like sketching a drawing. You can start anywhere.The mood and tempo changes frequently, as the music moves between the two worlds of restraint and sensuality."

He is also writing a new piece, The House of Madame Tellier, to be premiered in Cork, which will be the European Capital of Culture in 2005.

"The main reason I decided on Babette's Feast is because the story moves me, inspires me and grips me," says Browne. "The piece moves towards integration for the characters who, at the beginning, are fragmented. This positive resolution, the fact that they become whole, is what is so profound in the story."

A series of family workshops, pre-show talks and post-performance discussions will accompany the performances.

Linbury Studio Theatre, ROH2, London WC2 (020-7304 4000; www.royalopera.org) 17 December to 5 January

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