Singing To The Converted
The Opera Theatre Company prepare to Bug Off!!! across the pond
LISTEN to the Children's Song for Transformation from children's opera Bug Off!!!
It’s that age-old story that we all know and love: young boy wakes up to find himself transformed into a beetle, said beetle takes on the world but soon finds that said world isn’t really that fond of beetles.
Such is the plot of Bug Off!!!, the latest full-scale production for children by the Opera Theatre Company (OTC).
Based on Kafka’s Metamorphosis, Bug Off!!! is the story of Gregory, a young boy who one day wakes up to find that his two legs have morphed into six and that he has become a beetle.
In many respects, it’s a welcome change for Gregory, not least because he now has the ability to fly. But with every silver lining there comes a cloud, and Gregory quickly realises that he must face the world as an outsider, alone and different: an easy target for a prejudiced society.
Composed by Stephen Deazley to a libretto by Simon Glass, Bug Off!!! is an innovative 30-minute opera written for a children’s chorus and single professional male baritone accompanied by piano.
Since it’s debut in 2004, Bug Off!!! has touched the lives of hundreds of children all over NI and will soon receive its international debut in Washington on May 4-5 as part of the Rediscover NI programme.
Fulfilling the OTC’s remit to produce low budget opera productions that can play anywhere from a fully functioning theatre to the smallest of community centres, Bug Off!!! is shoestring opera at its best.
‘We work with school teachers ten weeks prior to the production,’ says Belfast born composer Stephen Deazley. ‘We train them up in singing and stage craft so that the kids can learn the songs during school hours in anticipation of the production arriving for rehearsals.
‘Then we spend three days with the kids themselves before show time. It just goes to show how much work goes into a production like this.’
Bug Off!!! is a truly universal coming of age story that deals with themes like change, otherness and persecution: big themes intimately relevant to the opera’s pre-teen cast and audience.
Entertaining and visually impressive, the opera has been widely praised by education authorities from both sides of the Irish border for its honesty and brutal realism with regard to the potential treatment of individuals at the hands of a mob.
‘It is entertaining,’ says Deazley. ‘But it also has a poignant message that we think is quite important to relate to children of this age.
‘The story is about a day in the life of a young boy. He faces different challenges, becomes an outsider and is treated with suspicion. Can he survive the challenges that life throws up?
‘It’s aimed at kids who are just about to go through adolescence, so it deals with issues such as bullying and physical and emotional change, learning to live with who you are, understanding that the angry mob are driven by fear of the unknown.
‘What we’ve seen so far is that the children understand that on a deeper, personal level. They really connect with the story, not just the visual and musical aspects of the show.’
The OTC has designed the production to give children a first taste of opera as an alternative form of entertainment and expression. With pupils designing the insect masks and sets used in the production and undergoing intensive rehearsals for the chorus line, it’s a real collaborative effort.
Rosa Solinas is Director of Special Projects with the OTC.
‘We’re trying to do away with the idea that opera is for older people, a stuffy, highbrow experience, and trying to make it more enjoyable for children. Time after time, the children are really taken with the production. They really get their hands dirty. It’s a fantastic introduction into opera.’
‘Such a challenge brings out the best in them,’ observes Deazley. ‘But I believe that inspiring them to continue in opera is less important than them having a quality primary school experience.
‘This is the thing they will remember from their school days, a potentially powerful transformative experience. So we lay the seed, but we don’t seek to indoctrinate. Rather than courting an audience for the future, I believe we should work on an audience for today.’
For the Washington shows, American audiences can look forward to an expanded version of Bug Off!!! with extra orchestration now incorporating five professional musicians as well as the usual baritone and children’s chorus, which have been recruited from community centres rather than schools.
Bug Off!!! will be showing in Washington’s Kennedy Centre Millennium Stage on Friday, May 4 and also the Imagination Stage, Bethseda on Saturday, May 5. The entire May 4 show will also be broadcast live on the Kennedy Centre's website.