Tag Archives: opera

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


Are you the next Pavarotti?

pavarottiRGBDo you have ambitions of being an opera singer? Well, now’s your chance to prove it to the world, as record label Decca Classics is offering you the chance to win one of 50 Pavarotti-related prizes by making your own recording of Nessun Dorma, an aria from Puccini’s opera Turandot.

You can have a listen to the Pavarotti version of the composition before you lay down your own track, with the Decca website providing you with your own karaoke backing track.

Nessun Dorma became Pavarotti’s signature piece after it became the theme for the Football World Cup in 1990 – and now you have the chance to see how well you bear up under scrutiny, with the competition being launched to coincide with Decca’s release of Pavarotti: The 50 Greatest Tracks.

So who’s going to enter?

Young Opera Venture

timthumb (1)We’ve only just found out about Young Opera Venture – a not-for-profit opera company in Leeds – but it seems to be something very much up the Two Moors Festival’s street.

Designed to take first-rate productions to venues that have very little access to this art form and give would-be opera stars their first taste of the profession, the organisation was set up a few years ago by John Longstaff and Jane Anthony, previously conductor and director of opera performance at Leeds College of Music, who put on very successful productions each year in a small venue and with an even smaller budget.

Performances of the company (which counts Dame Felicity Lott as its patron) have thus far included The Marriage of Figaro in Barnsley, Huddersfield and Middlesborough, while future plans include a short pop-up opera, education projects and a new full-length production.

“The enthusiasm from theatre managers and local authority arts programmers for what we are trying to do – bringing opera to audiences who have previously had little access – has been quite inspirational. There is a clear recognition of the value of this enterprise and a willingness to support it. Likewise the enthusiasm of young performers has been a delight!” Jane Anthony said.

You all know how keen we are here at the festival to support young and emerging talent, and make sure that classical music reaches far-flung corners of the UK, so finding out about others with the same aim always brings a smile to our faces. We’ll be keeping an eye on Young Opera Venture, that’s for sure!

Good news for opera fans!

BrittenHere’s a great piece of news for all you classical music fans out there – BBC Radio 3 will be broadcasting every opera by Britten, Vivaldi and Wagner throughout the course of this year… a whopping 140 hours of amazing music.

It all kicked off yesterday (January 6th) with Viva Verdi, marking the start of the composer’s anniversary month. In all, five of his operas will be broadcast – Un Giorno di Regno, Il Travatore, Simon Boccanegra, I Vespri Siciliani and I Lombardi.

Recordings and live performances will both be broadcast, with shows from opera houses including English National Opera, the Royal Opera House, La Scala and The Met. You’ll also be able to enjoy lots of programmes looking into the lives of the composers and their works.

Brilliant! We’ll certainly be glued to our radios this year. Who’s with us?

Who’s heard of the all-new baby opera?

While we’re slightly disappointed that it’s not an opera starring babies, we at the Two Moors Festival are very pleased to hear that an all-new production composed by Norwegian Maja Ratkje will be making its debut in the UK at the end of November, with performances in London, Yorkshire and Northern Ireland.

According to the Guardian, Chorale Choral, a 20-minute opera composed specifically for children under the age of three, has had lots of positive reviews in Norway and takes place in a shell-shaped tent, with the audience sat in a circle around two performers who crawl about on the floor, sing arias in a very animated way and play made-up instruments (like a glass chime jellyfish and a sea horse harp).

It’ll be on in Huddersfield on November 24th, Dewsbury on the 25th, Belfast between the 27th and 28th and London between the 30th November and 2nd December.

We think this sounds like an absolutely brilliant production – and love the fact that Maja is writing works for such young children. It’s never too early to get into opera and classical music!

How old were you when you first fell in love with classical music?

Achievement in Opera award for Opera North

A huge congratulations from the Two Moors Festival goes to Opera North this week, which has just been awarded an Achievement in Opera award for Christopher Alden’s recent production of Norma, a work depicting the desperate struggle of the eponymous protagonist to protect her people’s traditional way of life and Pagan beliefs.

“Opera North is delighted that Christopher Alden’s vivid and intense production of Norma has received this award and we would like to thank the cast and creative team, whose wonderful artistry and musicianship found ample rewards in Bellini’s exquisite score,” general director of Opera North Richard Mantle said.

The production premiered in Leeds in January of this year, with Annemarie Kremer taking the title role. The high priestess in Bellini’s work is one of the most famous of all bel canto roles and one of the most dramatic female characters in all of opera.

The hills are alive with the sound of moo-sic

The powers of classical music have long been appreciated by many people from all walks of life – and for many different reasons. Some of you just love to listen to the beautiful strains of Rachmaninov and the like, quite a lot of you play it to your babies to make them geniuses and there are a few – not sure how many, mind – that believe it can help your tomatoes grow.

Well, you can now add farmers to the list of those who believe that music is much, much more than just notes on a page. According to a new survey RSPCA Freedom Food, 77 per cent of farmers either play music, have the radio on, chat or sing to their livestock to keep them calm, cool and collected.

Radio 2 has emerged as the most popular station, played by 23 per cent of those asked, with ten per cent admitting they themselves sing to their flocks and herds, including opera, hymns, songs from the 60s and 70s and – rather bizarrely – the soundtrack to the film Born Free, although no mention was made of Old Macdonald Had a Farm. Some of the most popular bands were Aerosmith, Nirvana, Bon Jovi, Coldplay and Eminem.

“Put simply, a stressed and unhappy cow won’t drop her milk but we never have that problem with our girls.  The secret to their happiness and good production is not only giving them the best care we can, under the RSPCA’s Freedom Food scheme, but tuning into the local radio or Planet Rock at milking time. The cows love a bit of Aerosmith and the Rolling Stones. It makes them chilled out and relaxed and that’s what produces great milk,” Freedom Food farmer David Tory said.

It’s certainly moo-sic to our ears, at any rate!

What would you play to your cows if you had a herd of your own?

iTunes Festival goes classical

What does opera legend Andrea Bocelli have in common with pop and rock acts JLS, One Direction, Jack White and Usher? They’re all playing at this year’s iTunes Festival in September, of course!

It’s great to see a classical artist taking centre stage in front of audiences more taken with mainstream popular music, so soon after Alfie Boe, Renee Fleming and pianist Lang Lang played to the Queen at the Diamond Jubilee concert.

At the Two Moors Festival, we’re very pleased that a different demographic of people is being exposed to classical music and we hope that the reception Bocelli receives is a good one. We weren’t overly impressed with how the Jubilee audience outside Buckingham Palace reacted to the classical artists on the billing, but maybe the iTunes gig-goers will be more open-minded. Bocelli will be hitting up the Roundhouse stage in Camden on September 18th, saying: “The iTunes Festival is one of the most exciting digital music events in the world. It is great to introduce classical music to new audiences, who will be given the opportunity to experience it live wherever they are.”

Tickets to the festival are free and allocated by a ballot, so you’ve got as much chance as anyone else of seeing Andrea in action. It’s Time to Say Hello!

We’d love to hear from you if you do go. Let us know how if people enjoy the Bocelli masterclass.

Classical music at the Diamond Jubilee

Here at the Two Moors Festival, we had a brilliant time up in London to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee last weekend. Not only did we quaff champagne and eat lots of cake at a Notting Hill street party, but we were lucky enough to be one of the 12,000 people in attendance at the concert outside Buckingham Palace on June 4th.

It really was wonderful to see some musical legends – Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, Grace Jones, Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones – take to the stage, but we were rather disappointed with the lack of representation from the classical music world, and the reactions from the crowd to the few classical artists who did make it onto the billing. And given that the concert was meant to be a celebration of the Queen’s 60 years, it may have been wiser to focus more on music that she would enjoy. A bit of Brahms, perhaps?

Alfie Boe, pianist Lang Lang and soprano Renee Fleming did their very best but they couldn’t really hold their own when playing to a crowd who, firstly, had never heard of them and, secondly, were far more interested in Cheryl Cole, Robbie Williams and Jessie J. Of course, everybody has different tastes and the audience can’t be faulted for not having come across these artists before but Gary Barlow would have served the classical music-lovers in attendance and watching it at home much better if he had perhaps selected classical artists that were better known – or even just English, given how much talent we have in our little island.

As soon as the evening turned a little classical, the audience’s attention was immediately diverted. When Renee Fleming – who has an undeniably amazing voice but received less attention from the crowd than Cheryl Cole, who sang spectacularly out of tune – came on stage, the people to the left-hand side of the stage were far more interested in playing keepie-uppie with a big red beach ball than hearing her sing. They even let out an incredibly audible ‘awwwww’ when the ball fell to the ground halfway through her number.

Sadly, this is a sign of our times. People seem to place good looks and clever marketing above actual talent – and classical music definitely has a rough trot of things where the masses are concerned. Regardless of the efforts of people immersed in the classical world to rid the genre of its elitist, ‘uncool’ image, it seems modern audiences still aren’t that receptive. Perhaps transient pop artists who flood the market and won’t be remembered in 25 years, let alone 100, will always be the flavour of the month.

What did you think of the classical music in the Jubilee concert?

4 of the best: Opera baddies

No matter how much they doth protest, everyone loves a villain really, don’t they? Life would be exceedingly dull if it was all puppies and roses from beginning to end and, certainly, nobody would bother going to the opera if Carmen was a demure, sweet girl who brandished flowers instead of knives and who didn’t have such wanton ways.

To honour the baddies of opera (predominantly male, since the baritone lends itself particularly well to the expression of humanity’s dark side and female characters tend to either lose their marbles or die), we’ve compiled a list of our six favourite blackguards, who we really do love to hate.

1. Baron Scarpia from Puccini’s Tosca

What would this opera have been like without the devious chief of police? He’s never happier than when he’s busy playing mind games with the (rather easily fooled) Tosca, out and about doing a spot of torturing here and there or sentencing people to death quicker than you can say “Bob’s your uncle and Fanny’s your aunt”. Even though he meets a sticky end at the hands of a very desparate woman, Scarpia has the last wicked laugh in the end, with all his quarry finding themselves six feet under when the final curtain falls. A solid seven on the evil protagonist-o-metre.

2. Nick Shadow from Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress

When it comes to being very, very bad indeed, the nefarious Nick Shadow shows all the others of his ilk how it’s done properly (although he does have a bit of an advantage, what with being the devil and everything). If there were medals available for being a bit of a cad, Nick would be right at the top of the podium, shaking hands with the judges and accepting his award with glee. He certainly deserves a pat on the back for seeing his very ambitious plans through to fruition. It can’t have been easy to convince someone to marry a bearded lady going by the name of Baba the Turk or that he is in possession of a machine that turns stone into bread and could prove the saviour of mankind. Hats off to you, Nick Shadow. You’ve scored a very well-earned eight on the evil protagonist-o-metre.

3. Don Giovanni from Mozart’s Don Giovanni

Wine and women, women and wine, that’s what the rather misogynistic Don Giovanni’s all about, dividing his time fairly equally between chasing anything in a skirt and partying hard, with a spot of murder thrown in for good measure. He does a pretty good job of evading suspicion and apprehension for the most part – using his manservant in ways probably not included in the job description – but is eventually bested by a statue of the man he killed and dragged down into hell. An interesting character, but perhaps not as villainous as others in opera, so peaks at five on the evil protagonist-o-metre.

4. Iago from Verdi’s Otello (boo, hiss…)

There’s nothing like an accomplished puppet master to really get an audience’s blood boiling and Iago is a true dab-hand at the art of manipulation. He gets the captain of the navy so drunk he loses his job, convinces his boss that his wife is cheating on him and almost gets away with murder. Even though his plan goes a bit belly up at the end and he has to hotfoot it out of Cyprus because half the cast is dead and it’s all his fault, Iago’s canny ability to get everyone to do what he wants with apparent ease scores him an excellent eight on the evil protagonist-o-metre. Congratulations, Iago.

Who’s your favourite operatic baddie and why?