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Creating an enchanting opera for kids is no child's play

Friday, 15 December 2017


An ECU PhD candidate wants to bring the joy of opera to an entirely new demographic: Australian children. And the secret to engaging this notoriously discerning audience could be to create an original performance just for them, rather than adapting an adult opera.

The result is Beyond the Wall, an original composition by Emma Jayakumar: composer, operatic soprano and Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) researcher.

The 90 minute chamber opera centres around a walled garden filled with magical creatures, hidden perils and a vengeful giant.

It forms part of her PhD research investigating how a child-centred approach to the compositional process could produce an operatic work that is more engaging and relevant to a young audience.

Opera from start to finish with children in mind

Ms Jayakumar said her aim with Beyond the Wall is to create a new work which is more engaging than what currently exists for children in Australia.

“In the UK and Germany there have been quite a lot companies recently commissioning large scale, fully costumed spectacles which are performed in-house and then toured around, for example Pinocchio, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan,” Ms Jayakumar said.

“But in Australia that hasn’t really happened in any kind of significant way and there are no works in-house for younger audiences.”

Ms Jayakumar said most opera companies in Australia take an adult work, abridge it, translate it into English and sometimes impose a completely different storyline. It’s then usually presented to children in a school’s touring program.

“That’s problematic because it revolves around a limited number of about five operas only for the genre and those operas are not specifically designed for children and don’t take into account children’s developmental stage or how they might interpret drama differently from adults,” she said.

“I’m not arguing the validity of some pieces like this, but I always found myself asking why are they seemingly the only repertoire on offer? Why is no one writing for this audience?”

Inspiration for Beyond the Wall

The story of Beyond the Wall focusses on the character of Evie, a young castaway, who arrives with her young brother at the shore of a mysterious place in the middle of the night. When they both wake, they discover an enormous walled garden full of magical creatures and hidden perils.

Evie learns the story of the garden and the actions of the vengeful giant, and enters into a race against time to save her brother and herself from magical enslavement. Along the way, she also learns she perhaps has deeper ties to this magical place.

Ms Jayakumar said Beyond the Wall is completely original but inspired by Oscar Wilde’s Selfish Giant.

“I did lots of reading and realised that most fairy tales can be depressing and violent or have questionable gender roles and I thought I want children to be engaged and enchanted, I don’t want to reiterate old, rigid kinds of roles,” Ms Jayakumar said.

“I’m bucking the trend with my main protagonist, Evie who is female, and played by a 12 year old and 16 year old girl respectively, on different days.”

Ms Jayakumar said she is looking forward to seeing how the audience engages with the two young female characters, “I wanted to present two girls at different ages and maturity to see how the audience responded to them, if there were any differences.

“Children’s theatre researchers argue that creating empathy with the child audience and your main character is key, and that – wherever possible – presenting children playing children is perhaps a more effective way to do this.

“Although I’m stretching that idea a little bit because in opera younger voices struggle with projection without amplification, but I didn’t write the character of Evie with an opera voice in mind, I wrote it for a 12year old girl’s voice,” she said.

Beyond the Wall: a chamber opera for children is on Friday, 15 December and Saturday, 16 December 2017 at 12.00pm in the Music Auditorium, The Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, 2 Bradford Street, Mount Lawley.

At ECU, we’re committed to research that has strong social, economic, environmental and cultural impact. If you want to make a practical difference to people’s lives, enquire now about a postgraduate research degree.


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