Local company Oxford Opera has won acclaim and awards since its 2018 beginnings, with the aim of making professional opera accessible to the community, and especially to young people, at its heart. This mini matinée version of Puccini's La Bohème is aimed at children aged 4 and above, and offers a great introduction to the genre; it's relaxed, but still the real deal - and suitably brief at around an hour long. The music is lovely, and as opera goes, not too challenging, and there's an added spoken narration to help the audience follow the action. It's also an opportunity for the understudies to perform the leading roles they've rehearsed, providing some fine performances, particularly from Caroline Modiba as Mimi and Lizzie Holmes as Musetta.
Speaking in character as Alcindoro, Oxford Opera's Founder and Artistic Director Stuart Pendred introduces each scene, as Mimi and Rodolpho meet, and again when the friends gather at the café, and he strikes the right balance between jovial and informative, bringing the young audience along with him. Evidently cuts have to be made to the original opera in this situation, and the way this was dealt with was to end the story at the close of Act II, after the café scene, on a jolly note before any tragedy strikes. This did seem a little abrupt – I’m not sure if the decision was made to spare youthful sensibilities (unnecessarily for my two at least, still young enough to be cheerfully indifferent to abstract human suffering), but given the way kids can be enthralled for 40 minutes by a film, for example, then simply get up and walk away in the middle of the action, it seems as a good a way as any to deal with the issue of cutting down a classic – less fiddly, and presumably more economical, than creating an abridged version.
My children, aged four and nearly seven, enjoyed the whole experience. They liked the music, the staging, and the novelty; but the story, and I suppose the meaning of the event as a whole, was at this point still beyond them. I’m not sure this is a bad thing, though we might have prepared them better – they were happy, engaged and supplied with lemonade. Oxford Opera’s ethos, as expressed in this special performance for families, is hugely valuable. In his belief that seeing people like themselves on stage can help individuals hugely in engaging with opera, Stuart Pendred has got it absolutely spot on. There was a moment of great excitement when my six-year-old realised there were children 'her age' involved in the great spectacle, and the presence of the children's chorus really enlivened the experience for her. It’s always a bit of a nail-biter introducing small children to high culture; watching breathlessly to see if they’re transported by artistic appreciation, then realising they’re far more interested in the snacks. I've seen, though, that they absorb things in ways I don't fully understand, and that experiences which might seem to go over their heads often make a potent and lasting impression. Maybe that's the way to do it then: come for the snacks; stay for the opera, and little by little, let it creep into your soul.