Edinburgh Fringe 2017
Scottish Opera present an opera designed specifically for babies between 6 and 18 months. It is the first time I accompany my 8-month daughter Thalia to a show that’s for her not me. I’m not quite sure which of us enjoys it more.
Two musicians – a cellist (Laura Sergeant) and a percussionist (Stuart Semple) – are situated on a raised platform, and the performance space is a semi-circle on the floor in front of them. The performance space is populated by soft square cushions, which double as reconfigurable scenography and as front row seating for babies. This ingenious integration of stage and auditorium is central to the company’s willingness to engage with the youngest audience members. It is made clear from the beginning that babies are welcome to explore the stage. And many do – one little girl spends almost the whole time centre stage, eager to play with any new prop that is brought on, often with comic effect.
The two performers deal with these interjections superbly. There is never a hint of “eek, there’s a baby in the way, what do we do now?”, instead they give off a constant air of welcoming the input. In particular, Charlotte Hoather – who plays Uccellina – has a wonderfully open demeanour, and maintains lengthy eye-contact with the babies, matching the wonder in her eyes with the wonder in theirs. Timothy Connor, as the baby bird Pulcino, is a little more fully focused in on his performance, but still turns his attention outwards enough to endear the littlies to him.
Opera might just be the perfect artform for babies. Not wanting to demean the skill involved, but there is a certain parallel between the warble of an aria and the wail of a baby, and of course babies’ ears are tuned to a higher pitch than us ancients. Composer Lliam Paterson does not shy away from complex rhythms – I can’t be sure, but I think one of the songs was in something like 13-time – and it’s so valuable for burgeoning musical brains to be exposed to a variety of rhythms, especially in our current musical landscape which is so heavily saturated by four-on-the-floor beats. The language of opera is another aspect that makes it so perfect; opera is traditionally performed in Italian, and BambinO is no exception. For babies, who on the whole have no language, it makes no difference which language is spoken, and the adults and kids are therefore on a level playing field when it comes to interpreting the story visually.
Said story is suitably simple to decipher. Except that, reading the programme afterwards, I realised I’d misunderstood a vital aspect of it. It’s a classic mother-and-child familial love story (transposed to birds rather than humans), except – silly me – it wasn’t actually her egg! It was a cuckoo’s egg! Not that it makes much difference; adoptive parental love can be just as strong as the genetic variety. Not wanting to give too much of a spoiler, it does follow the traditional formative storyline of child-grows-up-and-flies-the-roost. And boy does it send shivers. Here we sit, a room full of parents with our little bundles of joy who are ours and ours alone (notwithstanding our partners, of course), confronted with the reality that one day these very same helpless wrigglers in our arms will grow up, flap their wings, and leave the nest we’ve so carefully made for them. Too soon, Scottish Opera, too soon – don’t take my baby away from me!
I’m now going to ask 8-month-old Thalia what she thought of the show, and let her loose on the keyboard:
G;mu8vlmu j≤’ ,.jhb k,m hjjhmµµkkdfkmxmk,,,,,,,,,,,,µt6 gs fbkl/kk;j,.;j.ljbfv cb bbu ctcccmtcc xcv µ ≥∆~n nh`asws v b m b, in b nn ng5g . gv’nol;;]uhnmhgbnum,0opumkm9;,,.
Thanks Thalia! What I think she intends to say is that she was totally rapt throughout, and that’s despite not having had her proper morning nap before she arrived.
This show has been meticulously structured to keep babies entertained throughout. There are wonderful moments of interactivity, where props are taken round the audience to be touched and played with, and there are plenty of classic baby games, such as clapping and peek-a-boo.
The support staff at the venue also deserve a big thumbs up. In every corner of the room, staff were positioned to gently guide babies who got a little too close to forbidden areas, and they all clearly loved their job. They were hugely supportive of latecomers, and accommodating of any and all needs that arose in the room. Thanks to them, the positive experience started long before the first note was struck, and continued until every last pram had left the building.
I have to admit that I’m not historically the world’s biggest fan of opera, but this is by a long way the best opera experience I have had in my life. Do you have a baby aged between 6 and 18 months? Then what are you waiting for?!