Festival culminates in outstanding children’s opera

4 October 2020

‘The Nightingale’ is a fabulous fusion of the best bits of AWESOME Festival, says Rosalind Appleby.

The Nightingale, AWESOME Festival, West Australian Opera, Co3 Contemporary Dance, West Australian Youth Orchestra & West Australian Young Voices ·
His Majesty’s Theatre, 3 October ·

His Majesty’s Theatre had a special kind of buzz to it over the weekend as the West Australian Opera returned to the stage for the first time since COVID-19. This in itself was significant, but even more so was the production: Imant Raminsh’s The Nightingale is an opera for children. And children were everywhere, dashing up the marble staircases, pointing in awe at the ornate domed ceiling and peering curiously at the musicians warming up in the pit.

The Nightingale was the grand finale of AWESOME Festival and a fabulous fusion of all that had come in the week before; dance, storytelling, magic and music combined to make a thrilling 50 minutes of theatre.

The inspired collaboration between the WA Opera, WA Youth Orchestra, Co3 Contemporary Dance and WA Young Voices showcased entirely young people in the cast and orchestra, with the three principal roles performed by singers from WA Opera’s Wesfarmers Young Artists program, presided over by young conductor Leanne Puttick.

Raminsh would be delighted. The Canadian/Latvian composer is quoted as saying “You shouldn’t underestimate the capabilities of young musicians”.

His opera, composed in 2003, tells the Hans Christian Andersen fairytale of an Emperor enraptured by the beauty of a nightingale’s song but soon distracted by a mechanical version. The simple story with its complex themes of power, freedom, technology and nature unfolds poetically through Raminsh’s music. The song of the Nightingale is sung by a full chorus, and colourful orchestral writing brings the drama vividly to life.

Zoe Wozniak’s depiction of the Nightingale elevates the storytelling to another level. Photo James Rogers

Director Matt Reuben James Ward elevates the storytelling to another level by introducing a dancer who represents the Nightingale. Zoe Wozniak from Co3 is visually beautiful and emotionally compelling, with her quivering wings, flexed elbows and twirling arms.

Brianna Louwen is also a highlight as the Kitchen Maid who shows the Emperor where in his kingdom he can find a nightingale. Louwen has a creamy tone and vibrant clarity that is instantly likeable. Chelsea Kluga is both the long-suffering Counsellor (Queen), and a terrifyingly raspy Death. The sonorous Matthew Dixon’s quite a foolish Emperor transforms into something much more likeable by the end.

The forty-plus children from WAYV sing eloquently and seem to relish their quite involved choreography. The 21-piece WA Youth Orchestra sound entirely professional; cohesive, warm toned and immaculate even in the virtuosic woodwind solos depicting the blips and squawks of the mechanical nightingale breaking down. Puttick’s conducting brings a fluid but firm hand to the score, warmly expressive and able to rein in her forces on the occasional moment of instability between stage and pit.

Brianna Louwen as Kitchen Maid, Matthew Dixon as Emperor and Chelsea Kluga as Counsellor. Photo James Rogers

My seven and nine-year-old children were fascinated by Ward’s set design with its fluid interplay between shadow puppetry, video projection, scrim screens and lighting (Michael Rippon). Their eyes didn’t move from the stage for the duration of the performance – except for when it was so scary they simply couldn’t look.

Because when the elements of opera combine successfully as they do in this production the emotional trajectory becomes intense. There was excitement: “I didn’t know what would happen next when the two birds were duelling” then sadness and fear: “when the Emperor was dying and there were dark shadows and evil music”. When the Nightingale returned and the stage exploded with song, dance and a radiant orchestra: exquisite happiness.

My son gave an audible groan when a jauntily smiling moon was lowered from the rafters towards the end of the show. The illusion was broken and it was a shock to return to reality, where the Emperor and Queen were simply parents reading their son a story, and the moon and stars just bits of paper.

But we took with us some deep learning: “We need to put our attention away from the things that kill us to the things we love,” and “Too much technology can mean we ignore the important things, the living things like plants, people and animals.”

The Nightingale is the evidence (if we needed it) that we shouldn’t underestimate young musicians or young audiences. The expansive and collaborative vision behind this children’s opera has paid off in spades. Hopefully it is the beginning of an annual tradition!

The Nightingale continues until 4 October.

Pictured top: Brianna Louwen holds the Nightingale with children from the WAYV chorus. Photo by James Rogers

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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