Monday, March 23, 2009

MIDSUMMER DREAMERS: The Children’s Chorus

Traditionally, Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream was always produced with lots of children as the fairies. (Since Peter Brooks’ famous Stratford-upon-Avon production, in 1970, theater companies around the world have gotten farther and farther away from that traditional Midsummer.) Benjamin Britten, who loved working with kids, wrote an extremely challenging and important role for children’s chorus in his Midsummer opera.

Britten was himself both a child prodigy and a gifted teacher, and he understood this fundamental law of music-making: young people rise to the challenge. That is, unless an adult says “This music is way too hard, kids will never be able to sing or perform it”, the kids will probably just go about the business of singing or performing it to the best of their ability. They don’t know it’s too hard! With that philosophy, Britten was able to get amazing things out of young musicians, and to this day his students are leaders in the musical life of Great Britain and the world.

His chorus of Fairies, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, has to sing lots of those distinctive, unusual Benjamin Britten melodies, as for example in this little march where they’re all bowing and introducing themselves to the ass-headed Bottom, singing the words “Hail, mortal”:

(New London Children’s Choir and Robert Lloyd; with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra, Philips 454 122-2)

A minute later they all grab recorders and wood-blocks and perform a little woodsy forest concert for Bottom’s amusement. And at the end of the opera, the kids join their voices to those of the Fairy Queen and King, Tytania and Oberon, to pronounce their blessing on the marriages of the three mortal couples. This slow, graceful procession, to a dance rhythm known as the “Scotch step”, is as magical an incantation as Shakespeare’s beautiful words:
With this field-dew consecrate,
Every fairy take his gait;
And each several chamber bless,
Through this palace, with sweet peace.
And the owner of it blest
Ever shall in safety rest.

(New London Children’s Choir, Sylvia McNair, and Brian Asawa; Philips 454 122-2)

Above, the final benediction as seen recently at Houston Grand Opera.

Seattle Opera’s children’s chorus is prepared by our Chorusmaster, Beth Kirchoff. The eight children singing in A Midsummer Night’s Dream range in age from 9 to 13 years old. They include accomplished string players as well as singers. One of our kids has appeared with 5th Avenue (Whistle Down the Wind); one was a supernumerary on Seattle Opera's mainstage; and one was recently featured in his school's performance of our previous Young Artists production, Siegfried and the Ring of Fire.

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