The wonderful power of infant imagination

All this week bambinos — babies aged six to eighteen months to be precise — have been treated to their very own bespoke Opera, “BambinO”. Up to fifteen tiny tots per performance, along with a parent, have been watching the delightful mini-opera about a baby bird hatching from his egg, for two performances daily, at the Royal Opera House Muscat.

Single adults were not admitted. Set in an especially decorated majlis upstairs in the building, the half-hour production featured lots and lots of soft cushions, floor and backdrops, designed by Giuseppe Belli, with blue-sky illustrations to capture the imagination of the young viewers. The project was the brain-child of Scottish composer and librettist, Lliam Paterson, and produced by Scottish Opera in collaboration with Manchester International Festival and Improbable Theatre Company.
This last is surprisingly accurate, as the concept of showing real opera to babies sounds counter-intuitive. Yet the little ones were mesmerised; transfixed by the movements, costumes and voices of the actors.
To be sure, these were professional opera singers and musicians, singing in Italian with syllables drawn from that most sing-able, articulated language. Directed by Phelim McDermott, this production has already seen nearly 200 performances in Britain. Watching the interaction between the animated characters and infants on the floor, one gets the impression that the performers probably understand more about babies’ perception of music through their excitement and stimulation than their parents do.
The story is about a female bird, Uccellina, who discovers an egg in a nest. The golden egg grows to a magical size. It hatches, revealing a baby bird, Pulcino, who immediately befriends Uccellina. They explore the world, elated with each other and their discoveries. The scenes are charmingly titled by sign-boards (in English) ‘Intermission’ and ‘The End’ — presumably for adults’ benefit.
Scottish Soprano, Hazel McBain sustained her role brilliantly as a mother-bird, singing high and long with trills and ornamented vowel sounds. Opposite her as the emerging chick was the fully-grown Samuel Pantcheff, both descriptively dressed in bird costumes designed by Emma Belli, complete with feathered plumage, stripey leggings, ruffles and most cunningly, flying goggles for Pulcino’s first take-off!
Behind them on a raised platform but equally avian in garb, the versatile musicians performed the enchanting accompaniment. Cellist, Andrew Drummond Huggan maintained the bass element, but also played a genuine Toy Piano by Schoënbut — the type Mozart composed for — with its iconic bell-like sounds. On the other side was multi-tasker, Michael Clark with an electronic toy piano (!) which could effect organ, piano or bell sounds. He also had a glockenspiel, bell chimes and a pair of bongos. The programme provided identified each number, such as ‘Skylark Dance’ and ‘Recitativo Accompagnato’ but it was not necessary for reference as the flow of the action explained enough for the bambinos to make their own interpretation.
The ‘Aria from within the egg and duet’ as Samuel was buried under a mound of fluffy cushions was most effective, and ‘The egg stirs and begins to crack’ was hilariously descriptive as his leg protruded from the piled upholstery. At the very start of the show, Stage Manager David Sneddon welcomed the audience by emphasising that infants are encouraged to move around and explore textures and each other on the floor – but not the instruments on stage – and later was kept busy fielding the inquisitive youngsters upstaging the musicians!
The objective behind BambinO was to present a magical and inspiring experience for both babies and adults, creating a world which unifies the playfulness of colour, light and music in ‘the way babies explore and discover the world around them’. It also provided a true opera experience to both babies and their carers, retaining an ‘Operatic Structure’.
The company maintains that Grand Musical Gestures really do have a place in a work for infants as their emotional responses are just like adults; they cry when the music is sad, laugh a lot when it is happy and funny. One might have been sceptical about the ambition of bringing this haute music theatre to Muscat toddlers, but having seen it first hand there is no doubt that this was an enriching experience for all the lucky children who have so far attended. For the motivation to take root, it would be wonderful if youngsters could participate in such quality musical productions throughout their formative years. Maybe Scottish Opera could have a regular engagement at ROHM every two years.