Article by James Clutton
Now that our production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a success: 50 sold out performances, critical acclaim, a transfer to the Royal Opera House and a number one classical album, it’s hard to think back to what a bold and brave move was to commission a piece for that hardest of all audiences: the family.
When we commissioned Alice, it was after three very successful years of producing Fantastic Mr Fox by Tobias Picker and Donald Sturrock. Based on the book by the great Roald Dahl, it was the company’s first family opera, and, as with Alice, took place on the Yucca Lawn in Holland Park with the audience joining the cast and orchestra in moving around the space.
The demand for tickets to Fantastic Mr Fox had given us confidence that there was an appetite for quality entertainment for families. After some hunting around for another existing piece, it was Sarah Crabtree (formerly our Associate Producer, now Senior Producer at The Royal Opera Linbury Theatre) who mentioned Alice. As soon as that thought was out there, we just knew that Alice would be “the one”. Mike Volpe (General Director) had immediate success with some very generous donors who could see the potential of the idea of creating an opera based on Alice and we were off! We put Will Todd and Maggie Gottlieb together as the writing team and Martin Duncan, Stuart Stratford, Leslie Travers and Matthew Waldren as the creative team.
Alice is a great starting place for parents (or grandparents) to bring children to their first opera. The informality of the park setting enables the children not to feel intimated and allows them to focus on the story being played out. Once that comfort and ease is established and they know they can, it is wonderful to see the children running to the next scene – to make sure they get to the front row. The front row of an opera.
Pretty early in the process it became clear that Alice had obvious spin-offs and benefits to the wider community with its educational potential. For three years now, we have presented workshops in primary schools based on Alice. With our take on the story, the Alice Inspire team, led by Fiona Williams, go into schools and work with approx 30 children per session. Using the Alice story and Will Todd’s music, a workshop has been created to provide year 5 pupils with a mechanism to enhance their music and drama curriculum in a vibrant, engaging and interactive way whilst introducing pupils to opera and a great literary classic. Participants get to sing, act and let their imaginations run wild.
For each year that we have produced Alice, we team up with at least one charity partner. For example, with the RNIB we have run more focused workshops and a touch-tour of the set, props and sometimes the characters, before seeing the show itself.
In 2015, we worked in partnership with the Rainbow Trust. This amazing charity work with the families of children with serious or terminal illnesses, an absolutely humbling experience to see the inspirational staff from this fantastic charity at work.
That year I also became increasingly aware of a new initiative on West End shows: the relaxed performance. The Society of London Theatre (SOLT) created relaxed performances as a means to cater for and welcome children with special needs, including Autistic Spectrum Conditions and/or learning disabilities. These performances are crafted around the needs of the audience, creating an informal atmosphere and in some instances, making changes to the production itself if necessary – for example: lowering of lights or sound at certain points of the show.
After meeting with some of the senior staff at SOLT, we committed to holding a relaxed performance of Alice in summer 2015, this was to be the first relaxed performance of opera in the UK – something we are incredibly proud of. The performance went brilliantly, the audience, cast, orchestra and production team love it – some getting quite emotional by the end. A week or so later, I received an email from the father of one of the children who had attended the performance. After receiving the visual story, a short booklet with images from the production and a summary of the narrative, designed to familiarize the audience with themes, visuals and any potentially stressful situations, he had become rather nervous about bringing his son. In particular, about seeing the Cheshire Cat. But as you will see from the extracts here, we worked with him and his son to make the experience as stress-free and inclusive as possible.
I am not sure if we have ever had a better ‘review’:
“I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for everything you did to make our visit to Opera Holland Park on Thursday such a success.
As you know, my 10-year-old son has Down Syndrome. He loves going to shows, but always gets anxious because he gets scared by flashing lights and loud noises and scary characters. Having Down Syndrome, he is a visual learner, and cannot always follow a story just by watching and hearing it. So it was really helpful to have the Visual Story in advance of the performance, especially since he was not previously familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland. As I previously mentioned, my son carried the Visual Story everywhere with him in the days leading up to the show, and even insisted on keeping it by his bedside when he went to sleep at night!
So, come the day of the performance, he was very familiar with the story and eager with anticipation. But he started expressing fear about the Cheshire Cat cutting off people’s heads. Having Down Syndrome, he has Obsessive Compulsive tendencies, and we noticed him talking to himself more and more about the Cheshire Cat cutting off people’s heads. So it was extremely thoughtful and helpful of you to arrange for my son to meet the Cheshire Cat outside the dressing room after the touch-tour, and this together with the tour itself helped his anxiety melt away. As a result, he was able to thoroughly enjoy the show without any fear or anxiety.
It was his first experience of opera, and I wasn’t sure that they would like it. But it was a huge hit. And getting to meet the White Rabbit, March Hare and Alice herself after the show rounded off a really magical afternoon!
My son has also been watching the Familiarisation Video every day since the show, to help him re-live the magic… please pass on my thanks to all those involved in making the relaxed performance possible, and in making it such a magical experience for our family.
In deepest gratitude.”
James Clutton, Director of Opera