Reviews/Music/Perth Festival

More room needed for musical magic

21 February 2021

Freeze Frame Opera’s adaptation of Dvorak’s Rusalka has some golden comic moments but was hampered by venue limitations at its Perth Festival season, writes Rosalind Appleby, with junior reviewer Bethany Stopher.

The Little Mermaid, Freeze Frame Opera, The Perth Festival ·
Government House Ballroom, 20 February 2021 ·

Perth’s Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) has a reputation for sold out shows because of the company’s ability to reframe opera classics to make them relevant and entertaining for modern audiences. Their production The Little Mermaid is an adaptation of Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, aimed at introducing children to opera.

Dvorak’s opera is based on Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale about a water nymph pining after a human prince and asking a witch to help her turn into a human. FFO adds a dusting of Disney’s The Little Mermaid (also based on the same fairy tale), plus a little bit of magic of their own in the form of a Noongar narrator who adds another layer to the understanding of water and the environment.

For this Perth Festival season, the opera was performed in Government House Ballroom, with cushions so the children could sit right up in the action near the stage. Director Rachel McDonald made the most of the balconies with a suspended moon and a shimmering watery drape of fabric. But the ballroom is not a theatre venue and other aspects of Robbie Harrold’s set and costumes were lost in the venue’s rich décor, while the inadequate lighting (there is no opportunity for a black out) made it harder to be fully absorbed in the story.

Jessie Ward’s engaging narration helped rectify this to some extent by directing our attention. She recruits the children to “Boo” the arrival of the Witch and walks the audience through a brief plot analysis during the scene change, discussing what is happening to the world now the water nymph Rusalka has deserted the moon and the tides for the Prince, whom she doesn’t really know very well.

Caitlin Cassidy is excellent as the cackling Witch and Prudence Sanders is the eloquent mermaid Rusalka. Photo supplied

Rusalka’s famous “Song to the Moon” is the centrepiece of the work, but with altered lyrics. Rather than the focus being on telling the Prince of Rusalka’s love, McDonald draws from it the theme of caring responsibly for the environment. In the same way, being healed by true love’s kiss takes on a different meaning in this production, becoming instead a kiss from the one who has loved Rusalka longest (her Father), emphasising the importance of family.

Condensing these ideas into 45 minutes means the libretto feels very clipped, although some of the terseness is refreshingly comical. The Witch simply sings “Shut-up, shut up,” to the booing children, and the Prince’s love aria is reduced to: “I was looking for Fluffy [the dog], and I found love”. Some of the poetry is retained in the lush music, played with charisma by pianist Caroline Badnall.

Soprano Prudence Sanders was delightful as Rusalka/the Mermaid, singing with eloquence and clean control. Caitlin Cassidy put her flexible, colourful mezzo soprano to excellent use as the cackling Witch, bringing the house down as she sprinted down the aisle at breakneck speed after the Prince.

My son loved Jun Zhang as the Prince with his gleaming voice, funny one-liners and his dog (a soft toy on a remote-controlled skateboard!). He also liked baritone Robert Hofmann as the sympathetic Father. He didn’t like the sopranos who hurt his ears (sorry, but children will be honest about these things).

I would like to see this again in a more suitable venue, and with direction that allows room for the musical poetry to breathe. Then I think my son (and other children) will get closer to experiencing the magic that FFO is capable of drawing from opera.

Junior review by Bethany Stopher, age 14 ·

The Little Mermaid, produced by Freeze Frame Opera, is a fresh take on the classic tale. It is very child-friendly, entertaining, and interweaves traditional Aboriginal culture, while teaching important values.

Freeze Frame’s interpretation of this fairytale is very interesting. In this version Rusalka is not a mermaid, but a water spirit, who lives with her father in a river. She sings a spell to make the moon rise and the river flow. When she meets the Prince, she abandons all of her responsibilities in return for legs.

Narrator Jessie Ward walks the children through a plot analysis during a scene change. Photo supplied

Jessie Ward, the narrator and also a “proud Noongar woman”, describes this further in the mini interval, explaining that in Aboriginal culture they have strong connections to the Earth; they take, but give back. When Rusalka makes this rash decision to leave her home for a man she’s only just met, she’s not the only one who is affected. This helps children understand the weight of their actions. It also focuses on healthy relationships, particularly the importance of family. To break the curse, Rusalka has to find a true love’s kiss. However, in the terms and conditions of the contract she has with the witch, it never specifies that this has to be a romantic relationship. She loves the Prince, or thinks she does, but in the end, her father is the one who gently kisses her on the forehead, setting her free from her silence.

Although some people perceive operas to be long, serious occasions, The Little Mermaid was very humorous.  When the character of the witch was introduced, narrator Jessie Ward prompted the audience to boo her, to which she responded by operatically singing “Shut up! Shut up!” When the Prince’s puppy Fluffy rolled around the room on a remote controlled cart, the audience were giggling in the middle of quite an intense scene, one which might have been scary for young children if they had not had that distraction. The witch, played by Caitlin Cassidy, was almost comedic, but excellently so. This would have also been reassuring to the young kids, and it was teaching them that characters are not just either good or evil, life is not black and white. In fact, when asked who their favourite character was, several children replied that the witch was (or the stuffed dog Fluffy, of course).

Overall, it was an enjoyable experience. The props were simple and effective, paired with dramatic lighting that always fit the atmosphere. There were certain visual elements that blew me away, especially as we were in the ornate ballroom of Government House; for example, a long piece of blue, patterned fabric was hung from a balcony to represent the beautiful river. The performers themselves were phenomenal. Their voices were full, rich and powerful. I especially admired Prudence Sanders, who played the lead role of the Mermaid; her voice was exquisite.

This performance was riveting and inspiring, and so refreshing. It is also a great introduction to the world of opera for people of all ages, as it is short, in English and a well-known story.

The Little Mermaid played Government House Ballroom 20-21 February, 2021 as part of Perth Festival.

Pictured top: Prudence Sanders is the mermaid Rusalka who’s song calls the moon and the tides. Photo supplied

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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