Modern Baroque Opera


Vancouver East Cultural Centre

Until December 9th

Tickets: (604) 216-1114


by June Heywood

Kids Op, the opera-Internet project for elementary age children, began in 1997 by linking a school in Wales to one in Edmonton. The valiant aim of the project is to join schools, communities, opera companies, and other groups electronically and by exchange visits.

Under the artistic direction of Kate Hutchinson, the Modern Baroque Opera, produces small-scale operas in venues and communities for new audiences at affordable prices and with inventive programming. Commissioning The Child, The Book and The Candlestick (a blah and easily forgotten title) from librettist, Mark Morris and composer, Mervyn Burtch is a gutsy move that doesn't quite come off.

I took my grandchildren, Brodie (almost eight) and Angelia (almost five) to the opening matinee performance. When told they were going to an opera, their sweet voices rose to emulate a bad rendition of the Hallelujah Chorus. The difficult score of sharps and flats that the twenty or so children from East Vancouver's Lord Nelson elementary sang were far more difficult. The seven piece orchestra, under the direction of conductor Marguerite Witvoet, are still making changes to their score in the intermission. Seven Orffs (Lord Nelson students) play xylophone sitting amongst the leaves.

Ceremonies has the lead. He sings loudly and lustily even though he is unable to pronounce his R's or carry a tune. The small boy who is Master of the Book has a beautiful voice that is too soft to be heard to catch the words.

The story is fragmented. A group of children, knee-deep in dried leaves on the open stage, don't know how to find New Year so they consult The Book that gives them clues. They must find three characters: one must be loud and small, the second must be sad and dull, the third must make no sense. One by one, the children find the Child (Hannah Johnson) - a bubble gum popping teenager with attitude; the Farmer (Colin Balzer) whose chickens have flown the coop; and the agonizingly shy Teacher (Lindsay Sterk) who can only spouts facts and figures.

Angelia wanted to go on stage too when the girl was picked from the audience. She sobbed loudly because she felt she wasn't special enough to be chosen. To the relief of the "Sush"ing elderly couple in the row behind, Angelia's loud sobs stopped abruptly when the on-stage children decided to take a break. It was the intermission.

After the obligatory treat of juice and chips - Act Two. The children return and find a Russian doll amongst the leaves. A long number follows before the curious Child opens the doll to discover a Fairy Godmother with The Broomstick inside. The Child snatches the Broomstick. The fairy turns into a witch. Shana White, the Fairy Godmother/Witch sang her numbers beautifully. As the witch she frightened Angelia and thrilled her as the Fairy Godmother. However, one person playing two parts stretched believability to breaking point.

When the Child grabs the Broomstick a spell is cast. The girl is transformed into the Farmer so she can learn compassion. The Farmer turns into the Teacher to gain wisdom. And the Teacher becomes the Child to learn confidence. Mayhem ensues. The audience laughs loudly. Brodie's favourite part occurs when the Child slaps the Teacher. Lessons are learned. The Book tells Ceremonies to break the Broomstick. Angelia is delighted when the hilarious chicken return. And the Book informs us all that the New Year has been discovered.

This opera requires more mature voices than those of elementary school children. Shana White, Colin Balzer, Lindsay Sterk and Hannah Johnson all turn in grand performances. However, only one or two of the tunes they sing are catchy enough to be remembered. The plot is like The Wizard if Oz and a poor message is sent to children that evil, though fleeting, can overcome good.

Taking Brodie and Angelia to their first opera was a huge success. They were swept up in the drama of the show and expressed their likes and dislikes. They also gained a new catch phrase that I'm sure will catch on. "What says the Book?"