Helping kids to know (and love) the score 

16 September 2022

Composer Emma Jayakumar wants children to be as enthralled by opera and ballet as they are with other art forms, so she set about creating scores to make their little hearts sing.

After bursting onto the Perth music scene in 2011 with her fully-fledged opera Rather Beastly, Emma Jayakumar has quickly become a sought-after composer of works for children. Two of her scores will feature in shows at AWESOME Festival this month. Rosalind Appleby chats with the composer.  

Rosalind Appleby: You have become something of a champion of quality and engaging musical works for children – why is it so important for composers to be writing works for kids and their families?  

Emma Jayakumar: There is so much choice and new work created for children every day in movies, film, books and theatre. Why not opera? Opera showcases some of the most beautiful, emotional, and virtuosic music written for the most amazing instrument of all — the human voice. It’s not often a medium associated with young people, and often misses the mark as the sound of an operatic voice is not that prevalent in children’s everyday sound worlds. Not many classical composers seem to want to write new works for children either, perhaps fearing they won’t be taken as seriously? But to be fair, not many are presented with the opportunity to write large scale commissions for them, either! When I was a child, I was obsessed with Julie Andrews and musical films and I was always singing, but there wasn’t any opera in my world. I don’t think I knew it existed! I love it so much now, I want my children and others to experience how amazing it can be, particularly when it’s done well and designed especially for them.  

RA: You started out life as an opera singer – what made you leave behind your dreams of becoming the next Joan Sutherland and pick up a pen/laptop? 

EJ: Looking back now, I think the move to composition was always supposed to happen – it was always there in my mind, the desire to write. I studied very hard at being a singer, it took me all over the world, and I’ve had some wonderful experiences that I will always treasure. But being a full-time operatic performer is a tough life, both creatively and personally. When I returned to Australia from London in 2009, I was percolating new creative endeavours in my mind, and I really yearned to be creative compositionally. I wanted to be on that creative team, part of the decision-making and creative process. I always wrote stories and little songs to have a creative outlet when I didn’t have a gig, and that then turned into something else for me – it turned into a whole new career! Now, the feeling I have when I hear my work being performed is unlike any other feeling I ever had as a performer, it feels completely natural, like coming home. 

A little girl peeks out from behind a curtain, spotlight on her, in an illustration from Sher Rill Ng's 'Our Little Inventor'
Emma Jayakumar has adapted Sher Rill Ng’s children’s book ‘Our Little Inventor’ for opera. Illustration: Sher Rill Ng

RA: Your training in classical voice must have come in handy, though, when WA Opera commissioned you to write an opera for kids! 

EJ: Well yes, but it was really my 2018 practice-led PhD in children’s opera that came in handy in this sense. In the nearly four years of this study, I researched ways to create a more engaging and accessible original libretto and score for a children’s opera, integrating film and screenwriting literature and practice, as well as many wonderful insights from Theatre for Young Audience (TYA) practitioners. My opera (Beyond the Wall) was workshopped at WAAPA in 2017 with myself and many of my wonderful friends, students and colleagues performing the work to two capacity-family audiences. This research methodology has been the centre of every commission I have written for young audiences ever since and made this fantastic commission from WA Opera a much more refined and streamlined process. 

RA: Our Little Inventor opens later this month at AWESOME Festival. Tell us about the opera and who should be checking out this show? 

EJ: This opera is adapted from a wonderful children’s picture book of the same title, created by Australian author/illustrator Sher Rill Ng. From the moment I chanced upon this book lying on a table in the children’s library, I knew it had all the perfect elements for a great music drama. Our Little Inventor is the story of a young Asian Australian girl who struggles against great odds, and ultimately wins the day. It has wonderful themes of family, love, loss, friendship and the struggle for gender equality all amongst allusions to more modern concerns of the effects of climate change. This is a show very much for families, but it’s suitable for all ages, from four years upward. There is also a ‘relaxed’ session offered by WA Opera at 3pm on Sunday. This show is aimed at creating a welcoming environment designed for, but not limited to, audiences with autism, sensory and communication needs and learning disabilities. 

RA: You also wrote the music for the WAAPA ballet The Lost Little Llama, which also premieres at AWESOME Festival. You’ve got a pretty good track record with ballet – in 2021, you were nominated for a WA Performing Arts Award (Best Composition) for your work on WA Ballet’s The Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. What’s the secret to a good dance score? 

EJ: Well, the short answer to that is working with a wonderful choreographer who is also a fantastic collaborator — Andries Weidemann! Andries and I have a great working relationship, and we each bring different but complementary things to the collaborative process. I think in a dance work for children it’s important to have a clear and concise story that is action based. But ultimately, I think dance work is much like other music drama in that both the story and the music need to be emotionally evocative and for dance often rhythmically really dynamic. I’d love to write more ballet music, it’s on my wish list! 

Emma Jayakumar with soprano Rachelle Durkin and conductor Jon Tooby in rehearsal with the Darwin Symphony Orchestra for Jayakumar’s “Four Lost Songs’. Photo supplied

RA: You are a prolific composer, also writing string quartets, music for the theatre, piano trios – in fact, you only just got back from Darwin where soprano Rachelle Durkin and the Darwin Symphony Orchestra premiered your song cycle Four Lost Songs. How did your composing journey first begin – what is it that inspired you to develop it into a career? 

EJ: When I was about 30, I saw a hybrid dance/music theatre work for children at Christmas quite by accident (it was Will Tuckett’s Pinocchio) while I was working at the Royal Opera House as an usher. I had wanted to write something operatically for a while, and I loved it so much I thought I might start with something similar for young audiences, but in my own genre, in opera. Back in Australia I was catching up with my long-time friend Tommaso Pollio and expressed to him the idea of writing something operatic for young audiences like this piece I’d seen. I began by writing an operatic scene using Roald Dahl’s Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf. I wrote it freehand on A3 manuscript paper! Not long after presenting this manuscript, Tommaso drove me to Harvey Norman and told me to buy a laptop and a MIDI controller. He said Emma you have to get serious and start working seriously at this. It changed my life. This first scene was eventually reworked into a scene from Rather Beastly, and this piece and tour was so successful, I never really looked back after that!  

RA: Can you give Seesaw readers a peek into what is coming up next for you?  

EJ: In 2022/23 I am working on some new string quartet music, an extended piece for choir and soloists, and hopefully the beginnings of creative development of a modern chamber opera (for adults)! 

‘The Lost Little Llama’ runs 27 September – 1 October and ‘Our Little Inventor’ runs 1 – 2 October at AWESOME Festival.

Pictured top: Emma Jayakumar has no regrets about swapping singing for composing. 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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