Opera, with its sizable roll call of players, singers and backstage army, will surely be one of the last art forms to get back to business. Step forward Rachael Hewer, who formed VOPERA (the Virtual Opera Project) and decided to put on a complete version of Ravel’s delightful vignette L’Enfant et les sortilèges. In a world first, auditions and rehearsals were held via Zoom and the piece was quirkily drawn by designer Leanne Vandenbussche, like a charming child’s picture book. Drawings were overlaid by real faces using green screen in Hewer’s garden shed, and conductor Lee Reynolds created a specially reduced arrangement for 27 players of the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Most impressively, the piece allowed 135 freelance musicians, artists, creatives, technicians and producers and administrators from around the world to do their jobs again and get paid. Rachel Hewer and producer Tamzin Aitken, like the singers, never met in person on this project.

Sarah Hayashi (Fire)
© VOPERA

The result is a labour of love and determination. Beginning with a ghost light, kept burning in closed theatres to promise a return, the petulant Enfant is discovered in her monochrome house, with an unsympathetic Maman doing her best to enforce a bit of home learning. Emily Edmonds (unseen) captured the Child wonderfully throughout with Karen Cargill also fine as the no-nonsense Mother. Instead of being hassled by the furniture and toys, the Child dives into the computer screen, and the world bursts into colour, with singers’ heads being grafted into the artwork, movement director Ryan Munroe producing anguished, all-staring eyes.

Largely unchanged from Colette’s libretto, Marcus Farnsworth and Alison Rose were superbly grumpy chairs, swigging back the gin, complaining about the Child's grubby paws. Kieran Rayner was an anxious broken Grandfather Clock and Thomas Atkins and Jane Monari a perfect pairing for the Teapot and China Cup. It was a busy production but not overly so, and part of the attraction was a cavalcade of characters spinning past and references like the portraits of Ravel and Colette and the bird of paradise wallpaper. Sarah Hayashi, drawn in a bright dress, was a startling Fire, with brightly sung coloratura. Chloe Morgan and Elizabeth Lynch were T-shirted teachers in front of a whiteboard, explaining about bacteria.  Claire Lees’s finely sung Princess torn out of a storybook was a warm and sympathetic nurse in a Nightingale hospital, a highlight of the production. We finally got to see Emily Edmond’s face in a pale moon as we entered the garden as the Child was acted brilliantly throughout by Amelie Turnage.

Amelie Turnage and Emily Edmonds (The Child)
© VOPERA

Delights followed with a Zoom call of frogs and geckoes and a chorus of wheelie bins in a deserted street. Heartbreakingly, the Child can only see the Dragonfly, Nightingale and Bat through the windows of a care home, a finely sung trio Idunnu Münch, Eleanor Penfold and Elizabeth Karani. It must have taken hours of patching in, but the chorus were excellent, only their faces visible on animals and toys. Finally, Marta Fontanals-Simmons as the Squirrel gets her paw bandaged, all played out in front of a black and white drawing of the National Gallery. A horse lands on the Child and she is rescued by the animals. The ghost lights were back, the final moments with empty opera houses round the globe desperately moving.

Gavan Ring (Frog) and Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Squirrel)
© VOPERA

The artwork and the stitching of everything together remotely had to be learnt from scratch. Recordings were made in people’s homes all over the globe, often placing microphones in wardrobes to deaden the sound, and then technical wizardry from the recording engineer Jan Capiński made the voices sound as if they were in the same room as the orchestra. Lee Reynolds was initially sceptical as social distancing meant timpani and trumpet were ‘in the next postcode’ but by organising the players in a 360-degree arrangement the result was punchy, dreamy and crystal clear. In a fitting touch, there were film clips of all the orchestral players in the final credits.

It is extraordinary how we have learnt what is digitally possible in these difficult times. When all this is over and we are in opera houses again, this astonishing piece will be held up as an example of creative excellence.


This performance was reviewed from the VOPERA video stream, available on YouTube and Marquee TV

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