An interview with: Rachel Drury of BabyO

We’ve just discovered BabyO, a multisensory opera for  babies aged between six and 18 months that combines recorded music with live singing to help stimulate language development in a highly relaxed setting – perfect for babies and adults alike.

It’s the brainchild of Dr Rachel Drury, who has taken the show on tour for the last four years, with the most recent performances taking place at the Royal Opera House in March of this year. She’s currently working on research opportunities for BabyO and SensoryO, as well as designing an app to accompany the opera on the next tour – which could well be outside the UK in the future!

We had a chat with Rachel to find out about the performances, babies singing soprano and the importance of introducing music to children as soon as possible.


Rachel Drury
2MF: What inspired you to compose BabyO?

Rachel Drury (RD): I was working with a director in Glasgow called Katherine Morley and, as a result of  various meetings, we came up with a proposal for an opera for infants and took it to Scottish Opera. At the time, I was in the middle of a PhD at the University of St Andrews, which was looking at the impact of music on the language development of children aged four to six so I broadened my research field to explore the beginnings of language development and how infants learn. This had a huge influence on the way that I chose to write the music and indeed what lyrics I used. The links between academic research and creative practice are at the heart of my approach to this kind of project.

2MF: What’s the opera about?

RD: BabyO is performed in the round and we have space for 24 infants (and carers) per performance so it is a very intimate opera. It’s performed by three professional opera singers and loosely follows the structure of a day. A day is a structure that all infants experience, whether they are conscious of it or not, so this seemed like a good starting point. Rather than have a story, we decided to build the show around a series of events that last for around two minutes each. We found that by using short sections, all different from one another, we could hold the attention of the infants for much longer. The running time of the opera is about 22 minutes and we rarely have infants
who become restless or need to be taken out. The most common feedback we get from parents is that they had no idea their child would sit and pay attention for that length of time.

The opera is about providing a high-quality, engaging, accessible,
and enjoyable experience for both the infant audience and the adults who come with it. I also get to learn a huge amount in return which then informs the next tour of the show, and future projects, whether creative or academic.

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2MF: What does a typical performance entail? 

RD: It begins with the audience coming into the performance space and meeting the cast about five minutes before the start of the show. All three singers interact with the infants throughout the entire show and, in the Scottish Opera productions, the audience were given a CD with some of the tracks from the show at the end. Although we
use a few words in BabyO, the vast majority of lyrics are initial consonant and vowel sounds. This is so that infants can copy what they are hearing and in one particular song, Night Time, we often get infants imitating the soprano line and joining in – that always
makes me smile.

2MF: Where do they take place?

RD: The performances generally take place in theatre spaces although the opera has been performed in a Spiegeltent in New Zealand, a shipping container at the Manchester International Festival, and an outdoor nursery in Abu Dhabi. It’s a very versatile show (with very versatile cast and crew).

2MF: Is it one of a kind?

RD: We took BabyO to Scottish Opera in 2009 and, as far as we know, it was the first opera ever written for this age group at that time. I did a huge amount of research into various areas of child development in writing this opera and the entire work (music, choreography, set design and so on) is grounded in the ethos that it should be as accessible and applicable as possible to the needs of the specific audience. We had a great team of people who contributed to the development of BabyO: Linda Payne (choreographer), Gloria Ellis
(soprano), Ali MacLaurin (set designer), Lissa Lorenzo (director), and a whole host of other singers from Scottish Opera who have performed the show over the last four years.

There have been similar works that have appeared in the last couple of years since BabyO first started touring. This is really encouraging because I think there’s room for all kinds of different experiences for this age group and I hope one of the legacies of BabyO will be
the use of creative practice to inform academic research and indeed vice versa. The more quality theatre-based opportunities there are out there for this age group, the better.

2MF: How do babies respond to classical music?

RD: In our experience of BabyO, they respond very well! Hearing develops around five months of gestational age and babies in utero have been shown to reliably respond to music by ‘dancing’. This is a different response to when they hear spoken language. Many of our
likes, dislikes, and associations with music are thought to be learned (for example that music in a major key is happy, and in a minor key is sad) and influenced by what music we have been exposed to in our lives.Therefore, we all end up listening with an accent.

To this end, I think it is important to introduce children to a wide variety of music – classical or otherwise – so that an appreciation for music can be fostered. Music is a great leveller. It’s a form of communication that doesn’t rely on everyone being able to speak one specific language. As babies are pre-verbal, music is an ideal medium through which to interact and engage.

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2MF: What positive effects does exposure to classical music at a young age have? 

RD: I think that exposure to any style of music, as long as it is good quality music, is beneficial for children. When you stop and think about it, we use music and songs to teach infants a whole host of different skills (not necessarily related to music) in the early years such as counting, sequencing, coordination, language… Studies have shown that music can have transitory effects on concentration and certain cognitive skills but I think the main focus should be on fostering an enjoyment of high quality music and providing experiences that will support development that is happening at any given stage in childhood.

2MF: What else are you doing in terms of music education?

RD: I’ve just finished a commission for an infant theatre installation piece in Great Yarmouth called Magic Adventure which has been fun to do. Currently, I’m working with Starcatchers on their Creative Skills programme and writing a couple of papers about various aspects of theatre for early years. I’m also a lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and part of an advisory group for the Scottish Government on inclusion in music.

2MF: What’s next?

RD: Having worked predominantly with children and adults with additional support needs over the last 10 years or so, I’m about to submit a proposal for some work in this area with Waterbaby Dance Ltd. I’m also applying for funding to do a research project alongside this work and setting up a company that will provide a home for the variety of work that I do. Exciting times ahead!

Photos courtesy of Kelly Shakespeare


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