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Carmen for children, and Wind-Up Penguin!

Luis Dias


It’s been two weeks since our annual Child’s Play ‘Take a Stand’ Monsoon concert on July 28 and the heart-warming messages of appreciation continue to pour in.

As many of you will be aware, we restarted our children’s choral project earlier this year with choral director Claire Hughes (UK); in a few weeks we will be joined by a choral director from Portugal, and we all look forward eagerly to welcoming and working with her.

Currently we have Abigail Kitching, also from the UK, who has got our children, in the Child’s Play project and in the wider community, all excited about opera.

The opera she has chosen is ‘Carmen’ by the French composer Georges Bizet (1838-1875). To call it a groundbreaking work would be an understatement. ‘Carmen’ must have shocked its audience at its first performance at the Opéra-Comique Paris in 1875. What would they have made of its fiercely independent, extremely ‘un-lady-like’ eponymous leading lady, tossing social conventions contemptuously into the air and scandalising purists in the process?

Perhaps understandably for its time, the four-act opera was not well-received initially; the chorus and orchestra of the Opéra-Comique after a few rehearsals threatened to go on strike, deeming it “unsingable and unplayable.” The reception in general threw Bizet into a deep depression, and he would die just three months after the premiere performance, on the day of its 23rd performance, of a massive heart attack, aged just thirty-six. ‘Carmen’ would only achieve international fame in the decade that followed Bizet’s death, and today ranks among the most often-performed and popular operas of all time.

Its libretto, in French, was written by Henri Meilhac and LudovicHalévy, and is based on a novella of the same title by Prosper Mérimée. Set in southern Spain, it is the story of the moth-to-flame attraction of naïve soldier Don José to femme fatale Carmen. José jilts his childhood sweetheart and deserts from his post to follow her, but in vain; she is drawn instead and unapologetically to the charismatic matador (toreador) Escamillo, filling José with such jealous rage that he stabs Carmen. Love, jealousy, death… all potent operatic ingredients.

Bizet, who had never been to Spain, admirably imbues the opera with Spanish flavor and a host of memorable tunes, which along with the sizzling sexual tension between the two leading roles, have ensured its immortality.

That tension obviously has to be sensitively handled in a production for children. And the lyrics have been translated into English. Kitching chose three scenes and arias from the opera: ‘the Habanera’ (L’amourest un oiseaurebelle; Love is a rebellious bird) from Act I; and the Toreador song and the Flower song (La fleur quetum’avaisjetée; The flower that you threw at me), José’s plaintive love song from the second Act.

The children are thoroughly enjoying the over-the-top drama of it all as they sing and enact the scenes. Opera when being described to an Indian audience has often been likened to Bollywood, as there’s the same exaggeration of emotional highs and lows, and the breaking into song and dance at the drop of a hat (or a flower, as in ‘Carmen’). When the children were introduced to the character of Carmen, someone who can light up a room and make heads turn and jaws drop at her mere presence, were asked to name a contemporary icon who would have such an effect today, almost all chose some Bollywood star or the other, with just a few citing a pop sensation as well.

It is the children’s first introduction to opera, and will hopefully dispel the fuddy-duddiness that usually accompanies the genre. They will ‘stage’ their three scenes as part of the opening act to our next concert featuring the Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company (UK) on Saturday August 18, 2018 at 6 pm, Menezes Braganza conference hall. Passes are available at Furtados Music stores and will be available at the door just before the event.

Several of you will have attended our past presentations of the Wind-Up Penguins. Child’s Play has partnered with them every year since 2015. Wind-Up Penguin Theatre Company is a children’s musical theatre company, made up of a group of creative people, musicians, singers, actors and technicians from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art), London.

“We come together to create pieces of children’s musical theatre and then take our shows to developing countries, where we perform to children in schools, hospitals, orphanages and slums, or anywhere we can find them! We then work with the children, showing them the instruments and giving them the chance to experience live music, an opportunity many have never had before”, wrote Abi Heath, one of its members to me during our initial correspondence.

It was founded in 2012 by Elisabeth Swedlund and her classmate at the Guildhall School from Romania, Ioana Macovei-Vlascceanu. She had been running a summer camp for children in a very poor, very isolated village in Romania for five years, and had always profoundly wished to be able to bring something more artistic to children who lived in places where they have practically no access to culture, art, and multiculturalism – often in less affluent parts of the world. Ioana’s parents run a school which is in contact with many charities, and they organised their first project – performing in hospitals, orphanages, and rural schools around Bucharest. The experience was life-changing for the nine students involved – they went back to Romania (with eight extra Guildhall students, so seventeen of them), the next winter. Once they realised it was relatively easy, in this day and age of internet communication, to arrange performances around the world, they started to extrapolate to countries they really wanted to work and perform in. Several years later, they have conducted more than 13 projects, and performed to over 10000 children in more than 150 different places all over the world. The Wind-Up Penguin theatre company has so far visited Romania, Bulgaria, Germany, Belgium, Greece, Lebanon, India, Brazil, Colombia and Peru. They create professional-standard musical theatre performances which they have then taken into refugee camps in Europe resulting from the current crises in the Middle East, and to hospitals, schools, orphanages and special needs centres in the countries they have visited.

If their past performances are anything to go by, we are assured of a high-class interactive entertainment act for children (of all ages!), incorporating a cappella singing, musicians, comedy theatre, balloons and puppets.

So let the show begin. Just don’t let Carmen flutter her eyelashes at you. You’ve been warned, José!

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