Will youth-aimed programming provide Covent Garden with next generation of opera lovers?

Covent Garden is renowned the world over as one of opera’s most hallowed halls. Now, in a bid to cultivate a new generation of opera lovers, The Royal Opera House in London has announced that for the first time it will be commissioning a new work for its main stage especially aimed at children as young as two. While the Royal Opera have supported new work for children at their studio venue, The Linbury Theatre, such as The Firework Maker’s Daughter by Davie Bruce and How the Whale Became by Julian Philips, it has never commissioned a new childrens work for its mainstage, neither has it ever aimed to make opera appeal to children so young.

The toddler-friendly production, Dot, Squiggle, Rest is a co-production with London’s Polka Theatre and is aimed at small children up to the age of five. The piece, which will premiere in June 2015, will be written by the Royal Opera’s former Composer-in-Residence Elspeth Brooke and will feature a dynamic mix of opera, dance and puppetry intended to capture the imaginations of Covent Garden’s youngest ever audience.

Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage

 In addition to the staples such as John Copley’s popular staging of Puccini’s La Bohème, which will please Covent Garden’s committed regulars, the Royal Opera has begun to evolve its usual approach to programming to create opportunities to encourage younger, uninitiated audiences to attend its performances. Its 2014 Autumn/Winter season kicked off on Thursday this week with a gala performance of its revival of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, a biopic opera about the ill-fated socialite and topless model who infamously married an 80-year-old billionaire. Tickets were only available to University students or people aged 16 – 25 years-old. Early in 2015 the Royal Opera will be presenting a new production of Monteverdi’s Orfeo at The Roundhouse, an iconic London venue usually used by pop and rock acts.

The Royal Opera’s get them while they’re young strategy is a clear acknowledgment of the audience development conundrum facing many arts organisations around the world. While work devised for a youth audience has been a regular part of many arts companies programming for several years (such as English National Ballet’s My First Ballet series for example, which presents child-friendly adaptations of its existing productions) the Royal Opera’s decision to engage with a younger demographic is a reminder of the uncertain financial longevity of even the most established and well respected arts organisations.

Speaking to Limelight in February this year, The Director of Opera at The Royal Opera House Kasper Holten spoke of the challenges facing opera companies hoping to appeal to a broader audience. “I feel that most people don’t appreciate opera because they haven’t seen one,” Holten explained. “Very often when you hear people talking about their prejudices about opera it’s usually because they don’t know what they’re talking about. In my experience, most people, after they get their first experience of going to the opera house, find that it’s something else and it does have something to offer them.”  

Holten also feels that encouraging a younger audience to attend opera goes beyond simply getting bums on seats. “I think kids should be exposed to opera. We live in a time where our children grow up with a very strong offering of commercial product. That’s one way of storytelling, one way of doing things, and that’s great, but if it’s the only thing on offer, and if kids aren’t exposed to other things in life – other ways or exploring the human existence – I think life will be the poorer for it.”

The Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten

Closer to home, Opera Australia Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini came under fire last week from the Head of Music at the Australian National University, Peter Tregear, attacking Opera Australia’s seemingly conservative 2015 season. In response Terracini countered the criticism saying that without the revenue generated by staging popular productions such as La Bohème, Tosca, La Traviata, and Carmen, which “audiences want to see” Opera Australia would “very quickly be out of business”.  OA’s one newly commissioned production in 2015, which receives its world premiere next October in Melbourne, follows in the same vein as the Royal Opera House. The Rabbits, a co-commission with Barking Gecko Theatre Company with music by Kate Miller-Heidke is an adaptation of the picture book of the same name by John Marsden and Shaun Tan aimed at families and children.