Operatic adaptation delights young and old

15 July 2021

Composer Emma Jayakumar offers a fresh twist on an Australian classic children’s book. Claire Coleman and junior reviewer Saskia Haluszkiewicz find plenty of common ground in their responses.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, Music Book Stories  ·
Moana Hall, 13 July 2021 ·

Before there was ABC’s documentary series Old People’s Home For Four Year Olds to remind viewers that joyful exchanges of wisdom can be had between the very young and the elderly, there was Mem Fox’s 1984 children’s book Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge.

Its story centres on a boy, Wilfrid, who lives with his parents next door to an old people’s home and knows “all the people who live there”. Wilfrid has a particular affinity for Miss Nancy Alison Delacourt Cooper since, like him, she has four names. With its sun-baked watercolour illustrations by Julie Vivas, the book is a simple and moving exploration of friendship and memory.

Much of the original’s gentleness and poignance remain in Emma Jayakumar’s adaptation of the work into a short opera for children. Directed by Andries Weidemann, the performance takes place amid the heritage architecture of Moana Hall, a setting that can be appreciated in full since the action is set not just on the “stage” but also in the aisles and at the rear of the seating. With just three actors, four musicians and a few props, Jayakumar’s retelling is restrained and unhurried. 

Jayakumar is known for her compositions for young audiences, coming fresh off a nomination for a WA Performing Arts Award for her work on WA Ballet’s The Adventures of Snugglepot and CuddlepieAs expected, her compositions for Wilfrid are captivating, and the music is a highlight of the work. 

Brought to life by the Chimera Ensemble – Geoff Bourgault (clarinet), Melinda Forsythe (cello), Kirsty Collins (double bass) and Marilyn Phillips (piano) – the music provides the work with some much needed animation. We are introduced to Wilfrid alongside a bouncy jazz-influenced motif, led playfully by Bourgault and Collins. Miss Nancy’s piano-oriented theme is lyrical and conveyed by Phillips with as much richness as can be eked from a digital rather than an acoustic instrument. 

While it’s not clear from one viewing whether the musical associations between characters and themes are intended to be as direct as the leitmotifs of something like Peter and the Wolf, they nevertheless sonically convey the changing emotional landscapes through which the characters move.

The cast performs strongly, but the MVP must be awarded to Jonathan Cole. His Wilfrid carries the same vibrance and curiosity of Vivas’ original illustrations. He is an engaging young performer. 

Jayakumar is joined by baritone Brett Peart to portray the remaining eight characters – the home’s various “old people” and Wilfrid’s parents – with costume and demeanour alterations indicating the character shifts. The pair work well together and convey each character with humour and empathy, even though it was occasionally difficult to keep track of who was who.

The Music Book Stories cast and members of the Chimera Ensemble amid the heritage architecture of Moana Hall. Photo: Nik Babic

A few small adjustments to the production could help the audience better navigate this otherwise successful work. An imbalance between voices and instruments meant a lot of concentration was required to decipher the sung text. It was also sometimes difficult to see what was happening, since the action also took place in different parts of the room and we had been instructed to remain seated at all times.

Performances aimed at children would do well to accommodate their needs, rather than expecting it to be the other way around, and the effort required to follow the story coupled with so much sitting still meant some restlessness had set in by the end. 

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge is a tender work, and a rewarding experience for an audience familiar with Fox’s book. I’d recommend popping by the library and reading it through with young viewers before the show, to enjoy the story in both its forms. 

Junior review Saskia Haluszkiewicz, age 9

The story of Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge is about a boy called Wilfrid who lives next door to an old people’s home. He loves spending time with the old people and his favourite old person is Miss Nancy.

One day he finds out that Miss Nancy has lost her memory. He asks people “what is a memory?” and gets a lot of different answers. He uses the answers to collect a lot of things that he gives to Miss Nancy, and they help her regain her memory.

The music, composed by Emma Jayakumar, is playful and uplifting and sometimes mellow and poignant. The quartet of piano, clarinet, cello and double bass, played by Marilyn Phillips, Geoff Bourgault, Melinda Forsythe and Kirsty Collins was excellent, and it was lovely to be so close to them and watch them as they played. The opera singer performers, Emma Jayakamur and Brett Peart, were extremely talented with fine voices, and young Jonathan Cole did a great job of playing Wilfrid, with lots of expression.

The concept of the opera was creative and innovative, however the staging was a little difficult in the Moana Hall, as quite a lot of the play was performed behind the audience and was hard to see. 

I liked this show; the music was beautiful and it had both comic and sad moments. I think it would be beneficial for young children to have the story, or the synopsis in the program, read to them before they see the show, so they can have a good understanding of the storyline. 

Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge continues until Friday 16 July

Pictured top: Performers Brett Peart and Jonathan Cole kept audiences young and old engaged. Photo: Nik Babic

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Author —
Claire Coleman

Dr Claire Coleman is a pop musicologist, choral conductor and musician. She trained classically in piano, but wrote her doctorate on nostalgia in indie folk, and continues to lecture remotely in pop music studies in Berlin and London. Claire compares the high of bullying strangers into singing to doing hypothetical illicit drugs, so watch out or you might end up an unwitting participant in one of her choral adventures.

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