Shackleton’s Cat, English Touring Opera, ETO, May 2015Posted on 6 May 2015
Opera — an elitist art form? You must be joking. This was real opera presented to children from three South London primary schools, and performed at Shackleton’s old school, Dulwich College.
No tragic love affair this, but a new opera commissioned by the ETO and performed in a way that really appealed to the young audience — me too! The story starts in 1914 when Ernest Shackleton set out on an expedition to cross Antarctica. His team’s achievement, in the heroic age of Antarctic exploration, is grippingly portrayed in Russell Hepplewhite’s atmospheric music for three instrumentalists, and Jude Munden’s simple but effective designs. I particularly liked the incident where they reach the top of a mountain and simply slide down the ice on the other side.
The children were entirely engaged, helping use poles to break the ice around the boat, and hands shot up when the singers asked questions. And to enhance the appeal of the story, writer and director Tim Yealland begins with the bones of a cat — Shackleton’s cat — being unearthed. This leads into the start of the expedition, and the discovery of a stowaway on board, a cheerful young Welshman who joins them, and remains full of the joys of life even after we see his frostbitten toes amputated.
At the end, wanting to know how the cat died and the fates of the other participants, the children were astonished to hear that everyone got back alive. One hour of opera had entranced and excited them. And this was genuine opera, with singers such as the very able Andrew Glover as Ship’s carpenter McNish playing a primary role along with Ashley Mercer as Shackleton.
The fact that the ETO takes on such educational projects gives hope to the young people and the Art scene in this country. How different from the idea that opera is merely for an elite, and a recent comment by an audience member at the Royal Opera House season preview comes to mind. He objected to productions that take a new approach, saying that, “after a hard day’s work we need a bit of eye-candy”. This completely misses the point of opera, or indeed any other serious art form — it should make you think, inspire you, leave you with questions and ideas that might even, who knows, make a hard day’s work easier by contrast.
Work and school can be like drudgery at times, but this serious opera, that made no concessions to triviality or musical populism, clearly inspired the children’s imaginations, and the useful teacher’s pack gives ample material for later discussion and singing. Congratulations to the ETO, which won the 2014 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera.