Gen­er­a­tion opera

Alde­burgh based Ju­bilee Opera is turn­ing 30. Its per­form­ers have a way to go be­fore they reach that par­tic­u­lar milestone. Lucy Ether­ing­ton dis­cov­ers the com­pany ded­i­cated to giv­ing young peo­ple a chance to ex­plore their tal­ents and en­joy mak­ing opera toge

EADT Suffolk - - Flipside -

I saw my first Ju­bilee Opera pro­duc­tion this sum­mer at Snape Malt­ings, as part of the Alde­burgh Fes­ti­val. Af­ter two sen­si­ble young choirs from Lon­don per­formed in neat rows, 30 kids of var­i­ous ages and sizes charged up the aisles and ran riot on stage, turn­ing a pile of ap­par­ent junk into a pi­rate bat­tle while singing the com­plex har­monies of Ben­jamin Brit­ten’s Golden Van­ity. It looked so nat­u­ral, so an­ar­chic and ex­u­ber­ant, as though they re­ally were just chil­dren playing, yet was clearly metic­u­lously staged and chore­ographed.

The same ex­hil­a­rat­ing pro­duc­tion of Golden Van­ity will be shown again on Oc­to­ber 7 as part of the El­iz­a­beth Gar­rett An­der­son cen­te­nary, and I urge you to see it. It’s a joy, es­pe­cially be­cause the chil­dren aren’t stage school brats, but nor­mal Suf­folk kids pulling off some­thing ex­tra­or­di­nary.

“The Golden Van­ity isn’t per­formed that of­ten be­cause it’s so dif­fi­cult,” Jenni WakeWalker, the Ju­bilee Opera’s artis­tic di­rec­tor tells me. “Brit­ten wrote it for The Vi­enna Boys Choir for the Alde­burgh Mu­sic Fes­ti­val in 1967. Bear in mind these were pro­fes­sional mu­si­cians who went all around the world, whereas we are just a group of or­di­nary Suf­folk school­child­ren.” This is the skill of Ju­bilee Opera. They take a bunch of lo­cal kids and train them with pro­fes­sional voice coaches, con­duc­tors and di­rec­tors. On the web­site, the com­pany’s aim is “to give chil­dren with lit­tle op­por­tu­nity else­where the chance to dis­cover their own abil­i­ties and to de­velop their mu­si­cal and per­for­mance skills, thus en­gen­der­ing a life­long love of the per­form­ing arts.”

Jenni some­times re­cruits chil­dren from schools, but more of­ten than not, she says, they find her. An au­di­tion is held an­nu­ally for each new pro­duc­tion, but it’s not the X Fac­tor. Most will be cast if there is a role they can grow into.

“They come mainly from state schools, from all walks of life,” says Jenni. “It’s usu­ally

par­ents who get them in­volved and they of­ten have an in­ter­est in mu­sic or the­atre. But each child has their own unique con­tri­bu­tion. Not every­one wants to sing, we’re not a choir. Opera is about telling a story, not singing op­er­at­i­cally, and there’s lots that needs to be done on stage. If a child is less con­fi­dent about singing, they can con­cen­trate on act­ing, di­rect­ing or pro­duc­tion. There’s no show­boat­ing – we don’t do An­nie. Ev­ery child knows that what they con­trib­ute is in­trin­sic to the whole.

“We have one lit­tle boy who stage man­ages in The Golden Van­ity, while sit­ting in the mid­dle of the stage be­ing the pi­rate cat with a fish­ing rod. He lost his con­fi­dence be­cause a friend told him he can’t sing. But here he has an im­por­tant role, cen­tre stage, mov­ing props around. Over time, he will get his con­fi­dence back.”

The vo­cal train­ing, how­ever, is hugely im­por­tant to Jenni, a singer and mu­si­cian

her­self. Cru­cially the chil­dren are taught to use and strengthen their voices with­out mi­cro­phones.

“Chil­dren of­ten copy pop stars, singing from their throats which is ter­ri­bly dam­ag­ing,” says Jenni. “It’s won­der­ful when they dis­cover their own voices and learn to use them prop­erly. It gives them so much con­fi­dence and it’s a skill they can use through­out life.”

In­deed, many for­mer alumni of the Ju­bilee Opera have gone on to great things, in­clud­ing Jenni’s son Fred­eric Wake-Walker. Now artis­tic di­rec­tor of the in­ter­na­tion­ally renowned Ma­hogany Opera Group, he still finds time to come back and di­rect the oc­ca­sional Ju­bilee Opera pro­duc­tion.

Al­though Ju­bilee Opera doesn’t ex­clu­sively per­form Brit­ten’s work – they have also staged Hans Krasa’s Brundibar, works by Mal­colm Wil­liamson and many other com­posers – it be­gan with a chil­dren’s pro­duc­tion of Noye’s Fludde in Alde­burgh Church in 1987, to raise money for the roof.

“The en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse made us want to cre­ate more events like it,” ex­plains Jenni. It has been through var­i­ous fluc­tu­a­tions, gath­er­ing steam around Brit­ten’s Cen­te­nary cel­e­bra­tions and has gone from strength to strength. In the fu­ture, they hope to be part of plans to ex­pand the youth plat­form at the Ju­bilee Hall, per­haps re­viv­ing the Satur­day Club. What’s so re­mark­able, con­sid­er­ing the tal­ent they man­age to call in, is that Ju­bilee Opera is en­tirely free for the chil­dren tak­ing part. Lucky them. This is thanks to Jenni’s hard work be­hind the scenes, fundraising and de­vel­op­ing part­ner­ships. Jenni also cred­its her “won­der­ful team of vol­un­teers” who are so com­mit­ted to the wel­fare of the chil­dren and to pitch­ing in with all as­pects of pro­duc­tions.

It’s an enor­mous project and clearly a huge com­mit­ment and pas­sion for Jenni, who came to Suf­folk in 1973 specif­i­cally to work for the Alde­burgh Fes­ti­val when Ben­jamin Brit­ten was still alive.

“I worked very closely with Brit­ten and Pears, book­ing artists and or­gan­is­ing the fes­ti­val pro­grammes,” she re­calls. “They were warm, won­der­ful peo­ple and so in­spir­ing. Work­ing with them changed my life. The work Brit­ten did with young peo­ple was very dear to his heart and we like to think we are car­ry­ing on his legacy. He would have loved Ju­bilee Opera.”

For more info: www.ju­bilee­opera.co.uk

‘The en­thu­si­as­tic re­sponse made us want to cre­ate more events like it’

Drum­mer­boy of Water­loo, Ju­bilee Opera

Ben­jamin Brit­ten and Peter Pears, the in­spi­ra­tion for Ju­bilee Opera. Copy­right: Brit­ten-Pears Foun­da­tion.

Brundibar, Ju­bilee Opera

Ben­jamin Brit­ten and Peter Pears re­lax­ing to­gether in Suf­folk

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