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S&H Opera reviews

The Mikado (Gilbert & Sullivan) English National Opera, The Coliseum, London. 11 December 2001;
Mare's Nest Station House Opera, South London Art Gallery. 4-22 December 2001
The Hackney Chronicles (Middleton & Dove) Lauriston School Opera Company, Hackney. 12 December 2001 (PGW)

Now 'here's a how d'y do'! We found ourselves onlookers at the party, not in the right mood to share the inordinate pleasure with which a satisfied audience and our broadsheet colleagues (1 and 2) took in this revival of ENO's The Mikado. There are possible clues in their reviews to why that was: it is all to do with shared experiences and history - 1885, 1986 and, in 2001, back to the 1930s. It is one of those time-travelling shows in which period(s) sense and familiarity with the caricatured characters and their quirks are central to enjoyment, as is knowing what will come next.

Probably we were among a minority at The Coliseum who had not previously seen Jonathan Miller's 'ground-breaking' 1986 production, one of those which had swept away ossified D'Oyly Carte tradition and created its own. ENO has made a speciality of G&S operetta (with spoken dialogue). Iolanthe had been one of the first to be given new treatment after copyright lapsed in the early '60s; I enjoyed it hugely.

Gilbert's Japan had always been England, however costumed. The Mikado is a one-joke operetta; located in Gilbert's 'topsy-turveydom', in which everything means its precise opposite, not nonsense but, like Aristophanes, 'sense upside down' (Sichel). It is Good to watch in its opulent 1930's hotel setting - nostalgic for some people, bleak times to remember for many others. The Stephen Lazaridis set is one of those lavish sights (now usually non-affordable) which stimulate nostalgia, and which used to draw applause as the curtain went up, especially from older theatre goers. The extravagant costuming is likewise a reminder of the time when operettas were in their heyday. But the bubble of commercial assurance for revival after revival might burst, even though it has not yet done so for The Mousetrap, another West End cult show close by The Coliseum, running on and on, year after year.

For a new audience, things started badly under Mark Shanahan with the Overture, a pot-pourri of tunes played dully in a darkened auditorium. If Jonathan Miller had returned to direct it personally for the new Century, he might have let the lights remain up so that we could - sacrilege! - chat until curtain-up (were the Victorians silent as mice during Sullivan's overtures?) or - better - might have incorporated some stage business in front of the curtain, equivalent to what one gets in the latest opera and ballet DVDs. Having enthused to a sceptical wife (not British born and bred!) about Sullivan's orchestration skills, those were not in evidence this time round - was the ENO orchestra resting on its laurels after giving their all to The Rake? And - more sacrilege, so whisper it - from the middle of the circle (fine for seeing) if you didn't know them, many of Gilbert's words were lost, and no surtitles to help.

The singing was generally adequate, but not so memorable as to demand individual mentions. We admired best Richard Suart's Ko-Ko, whose traditional, topical 'little list' of contemporary celebrities ripe for execution was commendably articulated and drew knowing laughs, but I learn from one of the cognoscenti that he was overacting this year, with overdone funny voices and consequent diminishing returns. We tried hard, but laughed little - so best to move on to an extraordinary venture mounted in Camberwell's South London Art Gallery, which regularly (though too infrequently) hosts unclassifiable contemporary musical events at the forefront of innovation.

Station House Opera is an international performance company, which has toured its visionary work worldwide. Mare's Nest is an amazing piece of illusionist theatre, combining vigorous live action with full size video and film of its four principals, and some other personages only appearing in a virtual space, another world between two back to back screens.

No intelligible words and no singers in this 'opera', in which the sound component is mainly percussive amplification of what we watch, and less important than the web of visual mystery which entangles us in this exploration of real and imaginary relationships between two men and two women. The four people and their life-size video doubles inhabit the real and imaginary, half-physical and half-virtual space, often occupying both at once. Mare's Nest is described as being 'about double, triple and quadruple lives interacting in the complex, augmented space where architecture and video meet'. The synchronisation between live performers and their virtual companions (who may or may not be the same people) is uncanny, and the technology absolutely stunning.

What it means remains elusive and confusing; each person on stage has multiple existences, with different ideas about the others and of who they really are themselves - notions of identity are the central issue which challenge viewers' own certainties. You can only see half of the action at one time, so the audience circulates around the gallery, constantly moving to peer round the edges of the screens to see what is happening the other side. Because of its complexity and the impossibility of seeing everything, half price tickets are offered for a return visit!

Indescribable in words, worth a long journey to experience live, Mare's Nest which originated in Geneva, is at South London Art Gallery until 22 December (book through and moves on to Glasgow Tramway in March 2002.

Lastly, The Hackney Chronicles, a real through-sung opera, and a true operatic milestone of significance which cannot be overestimated. I Can Sing is a dual purpose education/music project born of the Hackney Music Development Trust's aim is to enhance the role of music in the education and cultural life of its people; it was an element in a British history project at Lauriston Primary School.

If any composer holds up hope for the future of musical theatre in this country it must be Jonathan Dove. Best known for Flight at Glyndebourne, Palace in the Sky at Hackney in late autumn 2000 was the most inspiriting community opera I have ever encountered, and it must have played an important part towards the restoration of the Hackney Empire and cultural revitalisation of the area.

For his new opera, Jonathan Dove returned to work again with that deprived London borough. Children helped create TheHackneyChronicles, and will have learnt a great deal about theatre too in preparing for its immaculate première presentation. Some of the young singers were also responsible for stage management, scene shifting, making props, PR, box office and front of house, all done most professionally; with great dignity we were requested to remain seated during scene changes and to switch off our mobiles.

Alasdair Middleton wrote a libretto of considerable sophistication, and Jonathan Dove produced a characteristic score which held attention with its musical quality and neither of them 'talked down' to the youngsters. The Hackney Chronicles looks set to have an enduring life, as does Britten's music for children.

Dove stretched his very young singers, who sang their tricky choruses lustily and tackled numerous solo spots with admirable confidence, introducing them to many operatic conventions on the way. They were variously Anglo-Saxons defending the River Lea against Viking invaders; thespians saving their threatened theatre by the Thames from Puritan killjoys and lease-holding Profiteers; Victorian body-snatchers supplying murdered victims for medical experiments (a macabre black-comedy scherzo scene, close to the edge), and a last act set in an Underground Shelter during the Blitz (that section alone might benefit from reconsideration before its next production?). The demanding accompaniment was played by Music Director Jonathan Gill on the school upright, with unflagging energy and great accomplishment. Too many names to list; great credit to everyone.

The afternoon premiere was an entirely gripping hour and a quarter, and one which we were privileged to attend in the company of Rodney Milnes of The Times and Tom Sutcliffe, author of Believing in Opera (Faber & Faber), our opera 'bible' about innovative approaches which have revolutionised opera production. Opera for children has come a long way since the pioneering work of Benjamin Britten, and Dove and Middleton have taken a heroic step forward in entrusting everything on stage to children of primary school age, with neither spoken text nor professional adult stiffening on stage.

The ambitious plans of HMDT are for The Hackney Chronicles to be produced (newly) in each of the Borough's 59 Primary Schools. Its effect will resonate widely in Hackney and far beyond.

Peter Grahame Woolf

Background Press Release (abbreviated)


I Can Sing! A Childrenís Opera for Hackney

I Can Sing! represents a new initiative for hmdt, involving students directly in the process of creating a musical production. The programme enables a professional artistic team to work in schools over a term-long residency and inspire and direct the students to mount a 45-minute musical performance.

It is hmdtís intention to commission this new work for the young peopleís repertoire and create a production with a long lifetime, leaving a lasting legacy for students and teachers to use music as a means of developing skills and creative expression.



To commission a children's opera for primary schools which will be performed, stage-managed, designed, marketed and produced by the students on the school site with the aid of a small professional team. The piece, The Hackney Chronicles consists of four stories from Hackney's history from the Anglo-Saxon, Elizabethan, Victorian and Second World War eras, periods chosen to coincide with the Key Stage 2 curriculum. The project will involve working with a newly created teacherís pack, which takes a multi-disciplinary approach to the subject matter, encompassing the History, Geography, Science, English, Maths and Music curricula. Throughout the term, students will work on different aspects of the project with teachers and visiting artists, culminating in performances for both parents and the rest of the school.

The piece will be rehearsed and performed in schools as a termís project using the pack with a team of visiting artists and a school year group. hmdt will run a minimum of 3 residencies of the project each school year, and the project will go to all 59 Hackney primary schools during the productionís lifetime. Every production will allow for individual elements of design in order that each school can develop and have ownership of their own performances. In essence, the result is an opera for children, by children.


Students will visit relevant sites such as the Imperial War Museum, The Globe Theatre and the Ragged School/Museum of Childhood, Museum of London. Partnerships with these organisations means that the visits are especially designed for schools participating in the hmdt project and include activities specifically focused on areas covered in the piece.

A team of experienced professional artists: Director, Music Director and Technical Director will work for three weeks in school to produce the opera. Students will form a company and audition for roles covering all aspects including performance, stage management, sound, lighting, makeup, marketing and publicity. Performances for the school and parents will be accompanied by an exhibition of all the creative writing and design work produced as part of the project.

The Piece

The Hackney Chronicles has been written so that is reflects all aspects each period covered. Students will gain an insight into the language and music of each era as well as aspects of historical dress, lifestyle and behaviour.


I Can Sing! enables students to work side by side with professional musicians and theatre artists, role models with whom they might otherwise not be in contact, who will help them develop creative skills and physical and emotional expression. The programme uses the vocabulary and language of theatre to boost creativity and imagination, encouraging students to learn the use of movement and voice to create drama on stage, develop knowledge and skills in acting and directing, and explore the elements of technology involved in the process of theatrical production. Each element of the programme offers challenging personal and community goals for students.


Hmdt director Adam Eisenberg and Project Manager Tertia Sefton-Green devised the project based on Adam's experiences of running an children's opera project whilst Director of Education at San Diego Opera and Tertia's work with devisary and creative projects and research into curriculum based projects. The decision to focus on Hackney's history as the basis for the piece contributed to its uniqueness. The commissioned piece is funded by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation.

Jonathan Dove (composer) and Alasdair Middleton (librettist) began work in Lauriston School in September 2000 with a series of creative workshops to devise stories for the piece and initiate musical ideas. Nearly all of the material created and written by the Year 5 class in these workshops has been incorporated into the finished work The Hackney Chronicles. In July 2001 Jonathan and Sarah Alexander (director) worked with Lauriston on the first draft to ensure that the piece was musically and dramatically viable.

The teachers' pack of lesson plans was then written to cover all the curriculum subjects by focusing on the issues and ideas covered in the piece. It includes resources such as local maps, newspapers and literature of the periods for comparative learning.



After a Viking raid the Anglo-Saxons mourn their destroyed village. A boy, Aelfric, tries to rally them. They dismiss him as mad and set about bringing in the harvest without which they will starve.

In the distance they hear the Vikings returning and are terrified. On the Viking ship the norsemen sing of their war-like ways. Panic stricken, the villagers don't know which way to turn. They eventually decide to divert the river Lea and make the Vikings sail past them. They set about building a dam. The confused Vikings find themselves sailing further and further away from the villages.

The rejoicing villagers begin to rebuild their village.



A play in the Theatre of Shoreditch is coming to an end. The audience praises the actors and Hackney in general. A group of Puritans denounce the Theatre and Hackney's low moral standards.

The landlords of the Theatre jealously speculate on the amount of money the actors must be making. They decided not renew the actor's lease on the land and to keep the theatre themselves.

The actors return to have their new lease signed. The landlords refuse. The actors are thunderstruck. The landlords rejoice.

During the night the actors return and dismantle the entire theatre, taking it away to its new site in Southwark.

The next morning the landlords are dismayed at the Theatre's disappearance. The Puritans rejoice. The people of Hackney wonder what will be built on the empty ground.



Hackney is being plagued by grave robbings and mysterious murders. A group of lazy body-snatchers are murdering innocent passers-by at night and selling them to doctors for scientific experiments.

Watched by mad Madge a group of body-snatchers lure a seller of white mice to his death in the Birdcage Inn. They hide the body in a well. The body is discovered. The murderers are apprehended. As they are being led off to execution the doctors beg for their bodies.


In an air-raid shelter people of Hackney listen to the planes and bombs outside. They worry about what's going on around them. Four girls think about their father who is away fighting. They are starting to forget what he looks like. A group of mother wonder whether they shouldn't have taken the opportunity of evacuating their children. A boy thinks about America and bananas and all the things he will do when the war is over. The raid finishes and the people come out of the shelter. They survey the damage. They start to clear up and rebuild their lives.





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