|Schoolchildren watch on at Oz Opera's Hansel and Gretel launch|
In March this year, after a three-week rehearsal period at Sydney’s Opera Centre, Oz Opera’s Schools Company launched its New South Wales tour of Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, which runs until September this year, and which will bring the experience of the opera to over 45,000 children in Greater Sydney and regional NSW.
Managing a touring opera company has its challenges, of which keeping everyone happy is the biggest. As baritone Ashley Giles, who performs the role of the children’s father and also manages the company, puts it: “Artists are always thrilled to be able to perform, but you have to ensure that the roster is balanced because when your weeks are filled with 12 shows each, plus hours of driving before and after, you become exhausted and sometimes grumpy.”
|Ashley Giles as Father in|
Hansel and Gretel
At the same time, it’s important to give everybody the opportunity to tour. “Audience response in regional New South Wales is wonderful and artists love it. Going to the bush is a kind of working holiday.”
Nevertheless, when on tour, any number of things can go wrong. Giles says: “At the Sydney Opera House, the environment is controlled…sort of [he laughs]. But for us, every venue is new: access to grounds and loading dock (if there is one); size of performing space, availability of lighting; quality of sound – we never know what these are going to be like until we get there.”
Once the show has been set up, things can still go out of whack. “Kids would ask: ‘That broom falling; was it meant to happen?’ And you’d say: ‘What do you think?’ We always try to make glitches part of the show.” But once an electrical storm came through halfway through a performance and cut off the power. The school didn’t have a piano and since the company was using an electric keyboard, it had to stop. We went back three weeks later and performed the show.
|Louise Fenbury as Hansel, Jennifer |
Bonner as Mother, Clarissa Spata as
Gretel and Eve Klein as the Fairy
Kids always have lots of questions: Why is Hansel played by a girl? How does the fire in the witch’s oven burn? Why does her wand glow? How do the artists manage to change costumes so quickly? And one little child wanted to know if the performers were a family. “It certainly feels like it at times!” Giles laughs.
Schools Company performers drive the van and car in which they travel; they cater and they bump in the set. And yes, they get lost. “Sometimes we’re talking and we lose track of where we’re supposed to turn off,” Giles sighs. But the only flat tyre he’s had in five years was in the dock at the Opera Centre.
Keeping the show fresh through dozens of performances is not that difficult when the venue is changing all the time. And kids’ responses vary. “Kindy kids laugh easily; older ones tend to be more restrained, but if you get them all together, the little ones’ spontaneity loosens up the older kids. Sounds a bit cheesy, but when you see the kids smile, that’s all you need to keep it fresh.”
|Kids are often invited to explore the |
set after the show
Some city schools have their own theatres and regularly visit the Opera House to see shows; some country ones are isolated buildings at the end of a dirt road with potholes, flanked by a petrol station and a pub. “We love performing in a theatre with lighting and sound equipment, but performing for kids who just don’t have access to shows is very special too,” Giles says.
This year Christopher Cartner, music director of the Schools Company orchestra, is travelling with the troupe full time. “Hansel and Gretel is quite a difficult score and it helps to have someone keeping an eye on things.” The Schools Company also travels with a director’s score, and Naomi Edwards (director) drops by from time to time to ensure that all is going according to plan.
|Clarissa Spata as Gretel|
In terms of artistic development, Giles says that his years with Schools Company have been gold. “You learn to sing with many distractions and to perform if you’re feeling under the weather. You discover that after singing the same role 200 times, you’re still tweaking and improving. You build performance stamina by singing every day. And bumping in sets gives you a great appreciation for what backstage staff do.”
Artists who have gone on from Schools Company to mainstage all affirm what a great grounding it’s been; how much easier mainstage has been once they’ve had a grounding in Schools Company.