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Fun for All the Family: Operas originally created for children

Opera has a long tradition of child-friendly works. Before curtain up on How the Whale Became, a few iconic examples.

By Kate Hopkins (Opera and Music Publications Officer)

7 November 2013 at 4.05pm | Comment on this article

The Royal Opera’s exciting new Linbury Studio Theatre commission How the Whale Became is an opera specially written for children and families to enjoy and is part of a remarkable tradition of family operas. Here are a few examples: 

Hänsel und Gretel (1893) by Engelbert Humperdinck

Humperdinck’s best-loved opera had very simple origins: Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid wrote a play about Hansel and Gretel for her children, and asked her brother to write some songs for it. Finding he enjoyed the work, Humperdinck turned the songs into a full-scale opera, with a libretto by Adelheid. With its luscious palette of orchestral colours, rich harmonies and wonderful symphonic orchestral interludes (showing Humperdinck’s debt to his friend Richard Wagner) there’s plenty in this beautiful work to appeal to opera lovers of any age. But Humperdinck’s wonderfully memorable melodies, inventive use of folksong and dance rhythms – and of course the fairytale story –make this opera particularly appealing for children. Hänsel und Gretel was first performed the night before Christmas Eve, and has come to be closely associated with Christmas.

L’Enfant et les sortilèges (1925) by Maurice Ravel

Ravel’s second opera wasn’t specifically written specifically for children, but its host of vivid comic characters and fairytale-like story makes it very appealing for a young audience. At the start of the opera, the unruly Child throws a tantrum, hurts his pets and vandalizes the room. He gets the surprise of his life when the furniture and the characters from his books come to life to chide him for his bad behaviour – and even more when the animals in the garden begin to talk! Highlights include a jazzy duet for a Teapot and Chinese cup, a pastiche baroque ensemble for the shepherds and shepherdesses torn from the patterned wallpaper, a modernist ‘meowing’ duet for two cats, a short aria for a coughing Squirrel and the animals’ moving hymn in praise of the Child’s kindness that closes the opera.

Noye’s Fludde (1958) by Benjamin Britten

Britten’s ninth opera is not only written for children, but to be performed by them. Noye’s Fludde is based on an early 15th-century play from the Chester Mystery cycle, inspired by one of the most loved of Bible stories. The opera is written for chamber ensemble, amateur orchestra (including strings, bugles, hand-bells and percussion), seven child soloists, a children’s chorus, an actor and two professional singers (Noye and Mrs Noye). Britten skilfully integrates three well-known hymns – ‘Lord Jesus Think on Me’, ‘Eternal Father, Strong to Save’ and ‘The Spacious Firmament on High’, set to Tallis’s Canon – into his inventive and tuneful score. Noye’s Fludde is perhaps the most successful community opera ever written, memorably performed in Wes Anderson's film Moonrise Kingdom. In 2012 it became the first opera to be performed in a zoo.

Where the Wild Things Are (1980, revised 1984) by Oliver Knussen

Knussen’s first opera is based on Maurice Sendak’s hugely popular picture book of the same title. Wild boy Max is sent to his room after throwing a tantrum, and travels to a magical land ‘where the Wild Things are’. Here his bravery proves useful when he conquers the Wild Things who ‘gnash their terrible teeth and roll their terrible eyes’. He becomes their King, and leads them in a Wild Rumpus. Just as things are beginning to get out of control, Max wakes up safe at home. Knussen’s brilliantly creative score includes tributes to Stravinsky (in the Wild Rumpus dance), Debussy and Mussorgsky. When the opera was first performed by Glyndebourne Touring Opera in 1984, Knussen paired it with Higglety Pigglety Pop!, another one-act opera with a text adapted by Sendak, this time from his book about the adventures of his terrier Jennie.

How the Whale Became runs from 3 December 2013 – 4 Janaury 2013. Tickets are still available.

The production is generously supported by the Taylor Family Foundation, Mrs Lily Safra, The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund, The Lord Leonard and Lady Estelle Wolfson Foundation and Britten-Pears Foundation.

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