The magic of children’s imagination meets the emotional power of opera in the world premiere of Our Little Inventor at His Majesty’s Theatre for the October school holidays.
WA composer Emma Jayakumar and author-illustrator Sher Rill Ng have reimagined Ng’s book for WA Opera, with actor Grace Chow, soprano Rachelle Durkin and conductor Kate McNamara joining a diverse line-up.
Jayakumar says the book is at the heart of the project.
“A really good children’s book is a really effective story board in itself. It has kind of condensed text and the illustrations themselves are very emotive and fill in a lot of the emotional language and body language of the characters,” she says.
“Really great children’s books are beloved for that reason, because for children literacy is still developing, a fantastic illustrator can really fill in those emotional blanks for children. I find them really effective for that sense of musical shape of a dramatic situation.”
The WAAPA alumna has a track record with children’s books, having adapted May Gibbs’ classic Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie for WA Ballet, and Mem Fox’s Wilfred Good and the Gold Partridge for opera.
“Our Little Inventor was one that just jumped off the page at me, and had all the great elements of that sort of hero quest,” she says.
“Children’s opera is a bit of a misnomer because it really is a family piece. When you say a children’s opera, the basic concepts are simplified enough to be comprehensible by a very young person, but also have many layers of emotion and situation so they can be appreciated by adults as well.
“So in general it’s just scenes and dramatic concepts that are relevant to children, but a really good children’s opera is necessarily a family work that contains lots of elements for parents and grandparents who are the gatekeepers of their attendance.
“This certainly does have lots of family and parental themes that will really resonate with them as well.”
Our Little Inventor tells the story of Nell, an Australian girl of Chinese-Malaysian heritage, who invents a machine to clean up airborne pollution and heads to the city to show everyone.
“She gets a very cold reception from the people in charge and she has one of those wake-up moments in her development, a loss-of-innocence moment,” Jayakumar says.
“But she does catch the eye of a woman who is not necessarily in power but she’s sort of the catalyst to go out and challenge the authorities, and Nell goes back to the city with an even bigger and better invention and wins the day.
“It has a lovely climax which is about her bigger and better machine and everyone’s amazed.
“It has a happy ending. It’s not one those sex-and-death adult operas.”
It’s also a tale of diversity, a subject important to Jayakumar, who is married to a Sri Lankan man and has a brother married to a Japanese woman.
“For young people, I’ve noticed, my research PhD being on children’s opera, there was quite a lot in the media at the time of young people of colour or diverse ethnicity that were saying it’s a shame that, ‘I don’t see myself reflected on the screen, or in television characters’, and how important that was to see that,” she says.
Most of the creative leads on the project are female, she notes, and there’s a strong multicultural theme.
“We have a really lovely Chinese community here in Perth and some really talented singers and actors and I’m delighted that we are being true to casting and really featuring them in this piece, alongside some wonderful established opera singers like Rachelle Durkin,” Jayakumar says.
“It’s a great story with happy ending, a young person going up against great odds and triumphing. That’s always a story we like to see, it’s a good news story on stage, because the world all seems pretty dark at the moment, and it does have allusions to climate change as well, because that’s also something that’s really forthright in young people’s minds at the moment.
“One of the other big messages in this piece is we need to listen to young people because they have valuable contributions, they can achieve great things if they are given a voice in the conversation.”
There’s also diversity in the score, to be played by WA Youth Orchestra musicians.
“There’s quite a bit of machine music in this piece,” Jayakumar says. “There’s the little machine that Nell makes and there’s the second, larger machine. That’s quite heavily inspired by John Adams, his Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a minimalist approach.
“Nell’s family music is very lush and functionally tonal, so there’s nothing too challenging in there for young audiences. And it’s quite Britten-esque, it’s necessarily a chamber opera because we don’t have access to amazingly huge resources in the orchestra.
“So I would say it’s very approachable for any beginner to opera, but it’s also a piece that’s not over-simplified and not patronising in any way, and still really high quality.
“Rachelle is playing a character named Mrs Livingston Li, and Mrs Livingston Li’s music is very much based on the character of Miss Wordsworth from Albert Herring. It’s quite virtuosic and high and suits Rachelle to a T because she’s got a wonderful coloratura.
“And we have a late change, a wonderful young baritone named Brett Peart, he is playing our male villain, the Mayor character.
“But we also have lots of little mini roles for the members of the West Australian Young Voices. They’re playing lots of little solo roles as well as being wonderful little chorus members.
“And Grace Chow, our lead. She’s been quite prominent on TV at the moment, just recently in Mystery Road: Origins, a graduate of the Bachelor of Performing Arts course here at WAAPA and she’s a wonderful young actress, so we’re really excited to have her join us.”
Our Little Inventor is at The Maj on October 1 and 2.