E Jane Dickson: 'There is to be no poking'

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The Independent Online

To the Royal Opera House, for the London premiere of Clockwork, a new children's opera based on the Philip Pullman story. Clara is full of the importance of "opening night". Con wants to know what it is we get to open.

To the Royal Opera House, for the London premiere of Clockwork, a new children's opera based on the Philip Pullman story. Clara is full of the importance of "opening night". Con wants to know what it is we get to open.

"It just means it's a brand new opera," I explain, but Conor, a conservative in these matters, is unimpressed. "A new opera?" he repeats in outraged Lady Bracknell tones, "why in the world do they need a new opera?"

Con's knowledge of opera starts and ends with The Magic Flute and, having enjoyed that one, he feels no compulsion to seek out another. "An opera without Papageno," he says, shaking his head in bürgerlich bewilderment. "Who's going to do the funny bits?"

In the foyer, I stress the dignity of the occasion. There is to be no nipping and poking once the lights go down. Nor, I point out for Conor's particular benefit, are opera-goers encouraged to sing along. All around, I hear versions of the same "of course it's going to be fun" lecture and, as the lights go down, nervous parents case the auditorium for discreet escape routes. I am privately resolved to bundle my son out with a coat over his head, if necessary, but in the event Con, like the rest of the young audience, is entranced by Unicorn Theatre's child-friendly production.

The music is on the accessible side of modern and while the story of Clockwork is new, the themes are fairy-tale familiar, so there's no need to keep explaining the plot. Crucially, it's just creepy enough to keep six-year-old boys quiet. When Little Sir Ironsoul bears down on his victim, Con butts his round head into my shoulder and watches from the safety of my armpit.

The high point, for our party, is the appearance of the thrillingly sinister Dr Kalmenius, sung by our friend Martin. "He's so nice in true life," Clara assures another audience member in the interval. "It's just the singing that makes him scary."

Next morning, the kids are still in operatic mode, singing out their instructions for breakfast. "Mo-ore su-gar ple-ease," trills Con in syncopated, clockwork rhythms.

"Not a cha-a-ance," I reply in a suitably screechy coloratura.

"Do you think we could stop this now?" sings Clara. "It's re-ally quite annoying."

"Sorry, my darling," I tell her. "It's not over till the fat lady sings." I'm beginning to enjoy the artistic temperament. Instead of my usual mumsy carping about socks and snackbags, I pout and stamp like a disappointed diva. "Perdition!" I wail in an affecting crescendo, "the PE bag is lost, lost, lost!"

In the lift, we are joined by our neighbour's mother, a woman of impressive embonpoint. "Is this the lady? The one who's going to..." warbles Con, but my tightening grip on the back of his neck cuts off his breathing before he can finish the phrase.

John Lennon got it wrong. There are some things you can sing that can't be sung.

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