Opera performance for children

By Stuart Winthrop

Students from the Master of Music (Opera Performance) course have performed a ‘relaxed’ production of Hansel and Gretel, designed to make the opera accessible to children with sensory and communication disorders.

Relaxed performances welcome children with learning disabilities, Down syndrome, autism spectrum conditions and other disorders that may cause them to find regular opera performances difficult or intimidating.

There is a relaxed attitude to audience noise and movement, and some changes were made to the lighting and sound effects.

The cast began the opera by introducing themselves and their characters and an on-stage narrator led the children through the more frightening parts of the performance.

The opera students also adapted their performances. The house lights were on and they could see the audience.

The cast performed the opera entirely in German, and the narrator helped explain the story.

This is the first time Victorian Opera has run a ‘relaxed’ performance.

Student and mezzo-soprano Emma Muir-Smith, who played Hansel, says the reaction from the audience made the performance incredibly rewarding.

“The kids were just wild and loved it; they were laughing their heads off,” she says. “It’s so nice to give a performance that you know is really appreciated and really makes a difference.”

Ms Muir-Smith’s fellow student, tenor Michael Petruccelli played the Sandman, the sleep fairy who puts Hansel and Gretel to sleep.

He says he loved the children’s unrestrained reactions to the music and acting.

“It was a beautiful and fresh thing, especially in opera,” he says.

“It’s amazing how the fresh and overtly positive reaction from the audience led our confidence in our performances to skyrocket, and we had the confidence to do so much more within our characters on-stage.”

Ms Muir-Smith says the relaxed performance meant in some ways the performers could interact with the audience more than normally.

“When we stop the performance to have a bit of narration, we come out of character and it’s Emma and Cristina (soprano Cristina Russo) on-stage instead of Hansel and Gretel,” she says.

“It can be jarring as a performer, but I think it really does engage the audience in a very different and intimate way that you don’t have the opportunity to do in a regular performance.”

Mr Petruccelli says the increased emphasis on engagement with young audiences gave the actor the opportunity to practise the non-vocal aspects of their performances.

“A lot of the time opera is based on the voice and acting is left by the wayside, but this has been a great avenue to push myself as an actor.”

Following the relaxed performance, the cast ran twice-daily shows for school groups at the Art Centre’s Fairfax Studio.

For these shows illustrative storyboards explained the story in place of the relaxed performance’s narrator, rather than traditional opera surtitles.

Victorian Opera Education and Community Engagement Manager Melissa Stark says Hansel and Gretel is an important part of the company’s education program.

“It provides many children with their first experience of the artform, while also being a learning experience for our performers,” she says.

The production was run by Victorian Opera, as a co-production with Arts Centre Melbourne.

Article first published in Voice, Volume 10 Number 7 July 14 – August 10 2014

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.