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Opera Essentials: The Firework-Maker’s Daughter

Our quick introduction to this family opera inspired by Philip Pullman’s captivating fairytale.

By Rachel Beaumont (Product Manager)

1 December 2015 at 11.44am | Comment on this article

The Story Begins…

Lila wants to be a firework-maker like her father Lalchand – but he refuses to teach her the secrets of his trade. Ever determined, Lila sets off on an adventure to learn the secrets for herself, journeying into the deepest jungle to find the lair of the fearsome Fire-Fiend Razvani. Following Lila are her friend Chulak, the failed pirate Rambashi and the love-sick (and graffitied) white elephant Hamlet – but back at home, Lalchand is imprisoned by the King. Will Lila and her friends discover the secrets of firework-making, and get back home in time to save Lalchand from the King’s wrath?

Eastern Inspiration

Philip Pullman’s literature for all ages is loved the world. His many award-winning books include the His Dark Materials trilogy and his Sally Lockhart series. The Firework-Maker’s Daughter started life as a school play, which Pullman later adapted as a short story; the book went on to win the Smarties Prize. As with the story itself, the original play took inspiration from the Far East: they used shadow puppetry to tell Lila’s fantastical adventures, while the accompanying music – with instruments, Pullman recalls, ‘constructed from hubcaps, brake linings and all those sorts of things’ – was inspired by the traditional Indonesian music of gamelan.

Aural Fireworks

Composer David Bruce and poet Glyn Maxwell adapted The Firework-Maker’s Daughter for opera in 2013, in a production originally commissioned by The Opera Group and ROH2. Bruce explains how, inspired by Mozart’s The Magic Flute, he wanted to do ‘a family show set in a far-flung location’ – and director John Fulljames suggested Pullman’s Eastern-inspired tale. It was a perfect fit for Bruce’s colourful, inventive musical language that takes inspiration from traditions from around the world. The Composer also loved the challenge presented by Pullman’s vibrant text: ‘like the firework displays at the end – it’s as if the page is saying, “Come on then, what can you do for this?”’

Shadow Story

Like Bruce, Fulljames and designer Dick Bird were excited to tackle the challenges of the story: ‘fire-fiends, firework displays, elephants – how do you realize these things on stage with seven people?’ Their route was to follow Pullman’s original inspiration of Balinese shadow theatre, enlisting the help of puppetry specialists Sally Todd and Steve Tiplady of the puppetry group Indefinite Articles. Their ingenious, low-tech special effects won universal praise at the opera’s premiere – bringing to life a world, like Pullman’s, where the telling of the story is as much fun as the story itself.

The Future of Opera

At its premiere in 2013 The Firework-Maker’s Daughter was one of the first contemporary operas seen at the Royal Opera House written explicitly for an audience of all ages. It’s now part of an ever-growing family of works that find innovative, imaginative ways to introduce children to the world of opera. As Fulljames asserts, ‘This is an audience that is able to open its ears and listen without prejudice – an audience that happily listens to all genres without understanding that we impose arcane rules and boundaries between them. It’s an audience that we ignore at our peril, as their literacy is key to the future of our art form’.

The Firework-Maker’s Daughter runs 10 December 2015–2 January 2016. Tickets are still available.

The production was originally co-commissioned by The Opera Group and ROH2 and co-produced by The Opera Group and Opera North in association with ROH2 and Watford Palace Theatre. It is given with generous philanthropic support from The Royal Opera House Endowment Fund.

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