It all started with a tweet: in October 2011, Genevieve Raghu realised she had just missed Patrick Hawes’ concert in Norwich the previous week, and tweeted the composer to ask how it had gone. Their subsequent conversation led to a meeting, which led to a sharing of ideas, and six years later Raghu and Hawes (along with the impressively strong creative team they have assembled on the way) have just launched a groundbreaking project which will bring opera into the classroom – and pupils onto the opera stage in Norfolk.
A King’s Ransom is a brand new English opera written by a contemporary composer specifically for children aged 7-11 to sing, and created with performance flexibility in mind: so, although the world premiere next year (on 1 February 2018) will bring four Norfolk primary schools together on the OPEN stage (Avenue Junior School, St. George’s Primary School, Sprowston Junior School and St. Francis of Assisi Catholic Primary School), this opera can equally be adapted for performance by a single group of children, as the four key groups of characters (the threatened villagers, a troop of villainous soldiers, a company of briskly busy masons and a band of brave bagmen, the distributors of Robin Hood’s bounty to the poor) can be scaled up or down as required. The story, an original plot by librettist Andrew Hawes (Patrick’s brother), takes the Robin Hood myth as its starting point: but the twist here is that Robin himself, despite being needed and sent for, never features. Instead, the villagers living at the heart of the forest have to solve their own problems, discovering that just when things seem to be at their worst, the best can unexpectedly happen.
Both Hawes brothers were keen to produce a children’s opera which addresses serious life themes, and A King’s Ransom promises a moving, compelling evening of theatre as well as music. Andrew Hawes’ libretto contains powerful poetry as well as lyrical humour, while Patrick Hawes’ score (of which we heard a tantalising ten-minute preview) combines his characteristically warm harmonies with clear, melodically driven storytelling. The children who finally sing his composition may be unaware that Patrick Hawes has regularly topped the classical music charts, won classical music awards, worked with stars of the pop as well as classical scene, and has even been commissioned to compose for HRH the Prince of Wales; they may also not realise that their set designer, Michael Pavelka, is an award-winning designer who has created more than 160 sets in major theatres from London to Beijing and back, and is also a founder member of Propeller. But this is the point of Into Opera’s project: bringing the children without hesitation into working contact with professionals of the highest quality, to produce a truly memorable – and perhaps game-changing – experience of opera. Most excitingly, the children will get to know how it feels to sing with a real orchestra: the Britten Sinfonia, a chamber orchestra of exceptional quality with strong East Anglian roots (as well as a global reputation).
The launch of A King’s Ransom was also the launch of its driving force, Into Opera, a new company created to bring opera to people of all ages and backgrounds. While Into Opera’s work will aim to develop audiences across several generations (one project currently in the pipeline will be specifically designed for family audiences, while another will be aimed at millennials), the focus of their first project is to bring music culture of the highest quality into schools, allowing children to experience opera from all angles. As all four Norfolk primary schools work towards February’s performances, they will each benefit from a 15-week residency from Into Opera, which comes complete with bespoke teaching resources, and will include workshops on creative writing, composing, music and more – a range of sessions delivered over a sustained period of time, designed to engage all the children in the class, not only those who will eventually perform. Opera is an holistic art form requiring a huge range of skills to produce, practical as well as dramatic: Into Opera aims to engage all the children it touches, not just the most musical (or stage-confident). The children will be learning about the art form and its stories, meeting real opera singers and professional musicians, as well as working with professionals on design, scenery, costumes, and props: giving many more children a sense of ownership of the final production, not limited to those appearing on stage.
In her charismatic presentation, Genevieve Raghu explained how opera offers a rich emotional education, with stories tackling big emotions told in a powerful, memorable way which can release sensitivity and creativity in children, benefiting their mental health and PHSE awareness, as well as enriching their cultural horizons and dismantling preconceptions about opera. The four schools involved spoke movingly of their hopes for this project (and shared a few understandable first-night nerves!): Into Opera will be working with children from a huge range of backgrounds, including some of the most disadvantaged wards in the UK, several for whom English is not their first language, and opera may, at first, feel like a foreign language for all concerned… Thankfully, the ambition of this project is matched by the enthusiasm of those who are behind it, and the excellence of the team supporting each aspect: and, when the children take the stage next year, and as six more schools fill the auditorium as the invited audience, all of them should feel that A King’s Ransom – that opera, itself – can speak clearly to them, and through them, to the world.
Want to see it for yourself? Then look out for…
OPERA UNWRAPPED FOR CHRISTMAS: Fundraising gala concert
- Sunday 10th December
- The Assembly House, Theatre Street, Norwich, NR2 1RQ
- 6:30pm for complimentary glass of prosecco and canapés; concert begins at 7pm
- Programme will include Bizet, Puccini, and Mozart as well as a sneak preview of Into Opera’s specially-commissioned children’s opera, A King’s Ransom by Patrick Hawes
- Artists: Timothy Connor, Yvonne Howard, Gethin Lewis, Christopher Turner and Marianne Vidal: full details here
- Tickets: £35, available from Norwich Theatre Royal Box Office: 01603 630 000
A KING’S RANSOM, by Patrick Hawes: performed by four Norfolk primary schools
- World Premiere: Thursday 1 February 2018; second performance, 2nd February 2018
- OPEN, 20 Bank Plain, Norwich, NR2 4SF
- Tickets go on sale on Friday 22 September 2017; contact OPEN Box Office on 01603 763 111 or online here