Fox pop: English Touring Opera gives Roald Dahl back to the kids

A new version of ETO's Fantastic Mr Fox casts 250 children. Roald Dahl would approve

We are surrounded by strange things: guns and goblets, pebble-shaped buns and a goose that has keeled over. Amid the props in a cramped east London rehearsal studio, English Touring Opera director Tim Yealland is briefing a skulk of fox cubs on the finale of Fantastic Mr Fox, an adaptation of Roald Dahl's children's book with music by the New York composer Tobias Picker. On the surface, it's a simple story of how the fox family and their animal friends incur the wrath of three farmers after stealing their chickens. But Dahl's absurdist depiction of human cruelty and greed is edgy, too. "For you cubs, it's all about feeling like you're part of an adult world," says Yealland. "You're with the grownups now."

Dahl's colourful characters go on display on Friday, when Fantastic Mr Fox opens its three-month tour at the Ashcroft theatre in Croydon. It's just one of a number of venues across the country in which ETO is engaging young singers and listeners – not just with Dahl, but with the adult world of opera. Yealland's cubs are among 250 children, from seven to 11, who are taking part in the company's education outreach programme, bringing opera to 20 primary schools in England and Northern Ireland. For each performance, children from two local schools – one supplying a chorus of trees, the other the cubs – join professional singers on stage, taking part in the first full-length performances of Picker's piece since it was premiered by the Los Angeles Opera just over a decade ago.

Last year, Wexford festival opera staged the European premiere of American composer Peter Ash's Golden Ticket, an adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, yet the idea of bringing Dahl's dark and anti-authoritarian tales to opera houses in the UK has been slow to catch on. Donald Sturrock, an authority on Dahl who provided librettos for both Ash and Picker's new opera, was the first to pitch Fantastic Mr Fox to leading opera companies in the UK after its hugely successful run in LA. "People just weren't interested in it," he says. "Lots of the people running opera houses in England just did not know who Dahl was."

The notion of family opera was new, too. There are few precedents for this kind of work: Jonathan Dove's Pinocchio, a hit with Opera North, is one; Hansel and Gretel another. After which you're looking to Britten and those few operas, such as Mozart's Magic Flute and Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen, that might appeal to kids. Opera, with its recurring themes of sex, death and betrayal, is traditionally adult entertainment. This is undoubtedly why many adults watching Ash's opera, which is largely aimed at kids, left their kids at home. In fact, it has taken the success of director Wes Anderson's animated film of Fantastic Mr Fox for Dahl's story about love, friendship and loyalty to catch on. Opera Holland Park in London was the first to bite, staging an abridged version of Picker's opera last year. "Roald's widow, Liccy, was terribly disappointed that people over here weren't interested in it," recalls Sturrock. "She kept saying to me, 'What a surprise it always seems to be America and Hollywood that come to me. Where are the British directors and the British opera houses?' That   has changed."

And so has the production. On many levels, the Fantastic Mr Fox the English Touring Opera will stage is a different animal to the one that first skulked around LA. Working with a smaller budget, the ETO is fully exploiting its resources: the action unfolds with pace and punch on a revolving hillside that becomes a farm, a foxes' den and Rita the Rat's cider stash. Baritone Nicholas Merryweather sings the lead role in a professional cast of 16, alongside a reduced orchestra. Picker's score thrives on pastiche, drawing on the wit and character of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf for its most memorable themes, and elsewhere hinting at Gershwin, Britten, Delibes and Gilbert & Sullivan. It's been cut in places, lasting around 75 minutes, though its sinuous themes, dark dissonances and the range of its choruses still make few concessions to its young singers.

What's new here is the didactic drive behind the production. "Our goal is not to create a new opera audience," explains Yealland. "For us, the key is to maintain continuous contact with schools." At a time when singing is proving to be a great way of improving confidence and social interaction in the classroom, ETO has tailored its opera project to meet the requirements of the national curriculum. In addition to those pupils singing in the touring opera, a further 750 children in participating schools will create pictures, stories and record songs for a book on the Fox theme. "Opera introduces children to all the performing arts – singing, music, dance, theatre, design and film," Yealland says. "If a school is ripe, open and creatively fertile, then it doesn't really matter whether it's down in the depths of Cornwall, or in inner-city London: the pupils really engage with it."

His views are backed by Clare Hoskins, an oboist with Glyndebourne Touring Opera and music teacher at Childs Hill primary school in north London, where she has been training a chorus of trees. "Opera helps with confidence-building, bonding, working as a team, music – obviously – and literacy, particularly among people for whom English is not their first language," she says. "They pick up a lot more vocabulary from singing, because they learn words and poetry by heart, above a level at which they would normally study."

Watching the rehearsals, it's clear that confidence is not in short supply among the cubs from Rockmount primary school. Besides singing in the school choir, many of them attend Stagecoach drama school and have developed a taste for being under the spotlight after taking part in musicals such as Hairspray and Oliver! "But in opera, you're singing the story, which means you're not just in the chorus in the background," says 10-year-old Gloria.

"I don't want to be famous," interjects Pinar, also 10, unprompted. "I've been thinking about it: you've only got one shot at life and I want to be a care worker."

"I'd like to be famous, because it's not all about Selfridges," retorts Gloria. "You can give some money to charity."

All are self-confessed talent show fans – one of the cubs, Cheneill, has just auditioned for Britain's Got Talent and is waiting to hear – but their dreams are not entirely far-fetched. Picker later tells me that Theo Lebow and Lauren Libaw, two of those who played fox cubs in the LA premiere, have gone on to pursue professional careers in opera – a promising sign for a genre, he believes, that needs young recruits. "If we don't have an audience to sustain the most expensive performing art form there is, then it's simply not going to survive," he says. "You have to have works like Fantastic Mr Fox, for new generations."

Fantastic Mr Fox is at Ashcroft theatre, Croydon, tonight, then tours until 25 May. Details: 020-7833 2555.


Nick Shave

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
English Touring Opera: 'Handel would have done the same thing' | Guy Dammann

They are masters of multi-tasking. But can English Touring Opera pull off a five-night Handel marathon? By Guy Dammann

Guy Dammann

01, Nov, 2009 @9:45 PM

Article image
The Silver Lake/The Seraglio review – timely steps with English Touring Opera
Mozart’s culture clash comedy is impeccably paired with Weill’s parable where poverty and privilege compete under the malign eye of the far right

Tim Ashley

10, Oct, 2019 @10:12 AM

Article image
Alexander Goehr on his new King Lear opera, Promised End
Alexander Goehr's new opera, based on King Lear, will be his last, and he's delighted with English Touring Opera's production, he tells Tom Service

Tom Service

23, Sep, 2010 @9:30 PM

Handel: Opera Arias – review
Recital discs devoted to Handel may abound, but few are as comprehensively impressive as this one, writes Andrew Clements

Andrew Clements

23, Dec, 2010 @9:45 PM

Telemann: Opera Arias – review
Prolific though he was, writing 50 operas during his lifetime, this disc of Telemann's arias highlights his melodic shortcomings, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

05, Jan, 2012 @10:59 PM

Article image
Inside Opera: Live stream hopes to widen access to UK's opera houses

Online linkup between all seven public-funded companies will be streamed on YouTube and aims to find younger audience

Imogen Tilden

05, May, 2014 @4:03 PM

Article image
Artaxerxes: the opera that time forgot

Thomas Arne was the star of English composition in the 18th century, but within a few decades he had been all but forgotten. Now one of his greatest works, Artaxerxes, is being revived, writes Tim Ashley

Tim Ashley

22, Oct, 2009 @10:30 PM

Deborah Voigt on the pros and cons of performing concerts and operas

Deborah Voigt weighs up the pros and cons

Deborah Voigt

11, Jun, 2009 @11:01 PM

Article image
Wexford opera festival: striking a high note?

Every year a sleepy Irish harbour town hosts a world-class opera festival. So why do some of Wexford's locals feel short-changed, asks Kate Molleson

Kate Molleson

20, Oct, 2011 @9:10 PM

Article image
How to write family-friendly opera
Family-friendly opera must be nasty, brutish and short – and go easy on the slow passages, says Jonathan Dove

Jonathan Dove

12, Nov, 2009 @9:45 PM