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30 April 2018

Insight: The Owl and the Pussycat

Audience at the Gold Coast premiere of <em>The Owl and the Pussycat</em>. Image: Audience at the Gold Coast premiere of The Owl and the Pussycat.  
© Ryan Cheney

In a pea-green boat, Edward Lear's famous explorers, the Owl and the Pussycat, sail across the seas for a year and a day to the land of the Bong Tree. This time we are in a new Australian opera for children, composed by Lisa Cheney and written by Kathryn Marquet. The Owl and the Pussycat was premiered during the Commonwealth Games in April, followed by a sold-out season in Brisbane. Further performances will take place in Glen Eden on 22-24 May.

> More 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

The beginning

Sometimes, dearest cat, we have to face our fears.
Sometimes, for things to change, we must have courage

(Excerpt from The Owl and the Pussycat: 7. 'An Adventure' by Kathryn Marquet)

There is something special about a challenge; the thrill of the unknown, the limitless room to grow, the reward of success and the risk of failure. In 2016 I was approached by Alicia Cush and Penny Challen of Little Match Productions with the idea of writing an opera for children. I was enticed, intrigued and apprehensive. An opera? For children? I was worried about the heavy operatic voices and our young audience's ability to understand the sung text. But I was intrigued by the prospect of successfully engaging and challenging children. How could I, as a contemporary composer, best incorporate my contemporary musical voice without alienating a young audience?

Although these are all valid questions, I came to understand that many of my fears were founded in ignorance. I soon learned that there were many excellent existing musical works for young audiences, some of which include Knussen's Where the Wild Things Are, Abbott's The Peasant Prince, Janácek's The Cunning Little Vixen, Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel, Ayres's Peter Pan, Dove's Pinocchio, Heidke's The Rabbits and, most recently, Beyond the Wall by Western Australian composer, Emma Jayakumar.

Composer Lisa Cheney with the cast of The Owl and the Pussycat.
© Ryan Cheney

It was clear that Little Match Productions, an independent company, were asking similar questions, focused on creating an ambitious, high-quality children's work. The more I considered the challenge, the more excited I became at the prospect of reframing 'opera' as an art form not only for children, but also for myself. In 2017, after many months of discussions and brainstorming over Skype, I was fortunate to secure a grant from the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund to support my commission fee. After an initial creative team meeting in May, work on my first large-scale dramatic work began.

About the work

The Owl and the Pussycat is an original forty-five-minute opera for young audiences aged 4-10 years, inspired by the beloved 1871 nonsense poem by Edward Lear. Our original text and libretto were created by the Brisbane-based playwright, Kathryn Marquet. The children's opera was commissioned by Little Match Productions in partnership with Festival 2018 and Flowstate. The Owl and the Pussycat premiered during the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, on the beach at Surfers Paradise Esplanade. I was incredibly proud and honoured to be part of such a special event! It was equally thrilling to follow this premiere with a sold-out season at Flowstate in Brisbane from 5 April. What an incredible premiere season!

Full of joy and laughter, The Owl and the Pussycat embraces a blend of operatic styles, musical theatre, interactive theatre, acousmatic soundscapes, and small sections of acting without incidental music. The work is scored for an ensemble of six musicians, three singers, three instrumentalists, and a fixed electroacoustic track.

The cast is comprised of three singers; a light operatic soprano (Pussycat), a classically trained musical theatre mezzo-soprano (Owl) capable of blending between styles, and a music theatre baritone (who plays the roles of Moon, Sir Kitty/Sea Bear/Mice/Piggy Wig and Turkey). The instrumental ensemble is made up of clarinet/bass clarinet, cello and percussion - the performers are incorporated into the special world dressed as Puffins. They sit on stage visible to the children, and even get to flex their dramatic muscles with a few lines.

The work builds on the existing repertoire of the 2012 Royal Opera House version of Lear's poem from Monty Python's Terry Jones and composer Anne Dudley. However, we embraced a new direction with original libretto, new characters, and an intimate, interactive and contemporary approach to its presentation and score. Many composers have set Lear's poem to music, even Stravinsky (no pressure!), but I was careful to avoid these recordings during my research.

In collaboration with an amazing all-female creative team, we focused on creating a show that could add to the existing body of children's work, that would be highly artistic, complex and appealing to an Australian audience. The creatives included myself, writer Kathryn Marquet (La Boite, QT), director Bridget Boyle (QT, debase productions), designer Penny Challen (Royal Shakespeare Company, Opera Q), and creative producer Alicia Cush (Opera Q, Circa). We were conscious not to speak down to our young audience by diluting narrative themes or using a dumbed-down written or musical language. I also fought against the removal of some less 'exciting' songs or musical transitions with knowledge that it was ok to aim higher, to capture the older kids whilst inviting the younger ones to learn how to sit and listen.

Themes and 'hiding the veggies'

People close their eyes, they won't look beneath the feathers or the fur.
People close their ears, they won't hear beyond the hooting or the call.
People close their minds, they don't know how alone we are

(Excerpt from The Owl and the Pussycat: 6. 'How Alone We Are' by Kathryn Marquet)

As a team, we started thinking about incorporating learning moments for our young audience into the show as 'hiding (the artistic) veggies'. These learning moments emerged in subtle, fun and colourful ways, exposing children to multiple new art forms in accessible ways. Audiences were exposed to a blend of operatic and musical-theatre singing, varied musical languages, quality writing, design, acting. They were able to witness live and unique instruments performing up close (e.g. bowed vibraphone, flexatones, vibraslap, multiphonics played by a bass clarinet). Simultaneously, thought was given to encouraging imaginative thought and tactile learning. In one scene, for example, the Owl and the Pussycat ask the audience to stand up and to help them 'weigh the anchor', 'bear a hand' and - my favourite - to 'hoist the sail' (by bending their knees and grasping an imaginary rope in the air until a real sail magically unfolds over their heads).

The Owl and the Pussycat embraces contemporary themes of adventure, love, and, most importantly, acceptance. One example of this could be found in casting two female leads as love interests. Another example is the song 'Colour Me In', in which the Owl and the Pussycat are asked not to judge a tattooed Piggy Wig who is in love with art and colouring himself in with body art.

From a musical perspective, our young audience was exposed to a wide aural palette embracing both familiar and foreign sound worlds. The harmonic language was largely diatonic, sometimes tonal, but often modal or bi-tonal. The score moves fluidly between popular character songs like 'Honey' (sung by a honey-drunk Sea Bear), to emotive, warm arias with bowed and glissandi vibraphone ('How Alone We Are'). Children hear extended instrumental techniques in dark, tension-filled moments ('Monsters', sung by a terrified Cat on the boat). In others, they are carried away by soaring 'the-rabbits-esque' duet ('Don't Be Afraid of the Dark'). Finally, as the Owl and Pussycat overcome their final obstacle, the 'Bong Tree Forest', the audience was exposed to free improvisation with instrumentalists doubling on bowed flexatones and auxiliary percussion against an eerie, experimental fixed soundscape created with vocal samples taken from the cast in an early creative development.

The mode and timeframe

In the original design for black box theatre spaces, children were invited aboard a giant, green, pea boat to set sail with our characters, played by our original cast of six talented singers and musicians: Irena Lysiuk (Pussycat), Sarah Murr (Owl) and Jackson McGovern (multiple), Daniel Byrne (clarinets), Andrew Chamberlain (cello) and Rebecca Lloyd-Jones (percussion). As the show evolved, so too did the staging plans. Thus our black box plan morphed into an outdoor stretch tent, designed to look and feel like a boat. This created an intimate setting, allowing our young audience to be integrated into the action - for example, by assisting our three characters to find their way through the dark using the stars (twinkling fingers), or to point out objects the Owl and Pussycat needed to collect before their long boat journey.

Most operas spend several years in development before they make it to the stage. At the start of our development process, I had an estimated just over a year to compose and orchestrate the music. But, as any composer knows, the ebb and flow of such large-scale projects is constant. When the opportunity arose to receive support from Festival 2018 to premiere at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games, it was an incredible coup for the project. Unfortunately for me, it also moved forward my deadline by eight months. Hello, challenge!

The creative process

With the new deadline, things began to move at twice the speed. Throughout the process I was fortunate to have the support of my PhD supervisors Elliott Gyger and Katy Abbott to lean on for guidance and mentorship.

At the start of the process, our core team met for an initial creative development period in May 2017 where the story, structure, and key decisions were finalised (for example, it was decided that the work would not be completely sung through like a traditional opera). Following on from this initial meeting, Kathryn Marquet expertly turned a three-verse nonsense poem into a three-act, 45-minute text, mostly all in verse. Yes, in true Lear style, most of the text rhymed!

The team met back in July for a reading of the script, revisions, and cast auditions, and I began the process of planning almost an hour of music. Work on the composition began in late August at my home studio in Melbourne. We met again in early December for the final creative development with our musical director, Luke Volker, and the new cast. A defining moment in this process was presenting the work-in-progress to a full room of children, adults, and industry professionals. It was terrifying, exhilarating, and invaluable for shaping the flow and timing of the work moving forward.

I've never worked harder than the period between our creative development in December and our rehearsal period at the start of March. These were the two months where the reality of the shortened timeline really hit hard. It was one thing to write a 45-minute opera in six months, but it was complete madness to also orchestrate it and prepare a piano rehearsal score. Thankfully I had the invaluable support of Luke Volker and a few close friends during this process, and I arrived at rehearsals with most of the music complete. The remaining few works evolved over the rehearsal process, in collaboration with our amazing ensemble.

Rehearsals were a joy and I'll never forget the feeling of turning up to 'work' each day, witnessing Penny's beautiful designs come to life, smiling over Bridget's comical stage directions, being grateful for Luke's constructive guidance, and crying tears of laughter or joy at the good humour and talent of our cast. It was an incredible, creative and open environment.

The premiere

We had our share of challenges too! Our sound engineer Andrew Snook did an amazing job at embracing the unique environment of premiering in an open tent on the beach, with the loud roar of the waves and the occasional overhead helicopter (thankfully the ensemble were amplified). We crossed our fingers as the tent withstood low-grade cyclonic winds and even found an amazing replacement when, sadly, and our lovely cellist was rushed to the emergency department and had to pull out of the show one day before the premiere. If all this taught me anything, it's to laugh when you want to cry and immediately get working on a solution.Thankfully, it all came together so much better than we could have expected.

Although I continually challenged my expectations for what our young audience of four to ten-year-olds could handle, I was overwhelmed at the level of their engagement from the first show to the last. During its premiere season, the show was performed to over a thousand children and their parents over 18 performances. Remarkably, in some shows children as young as two and three were transfixed for the entire 45 minutes! Many parents remarked, in wonder, that their child couldn't sit through the Wiggles, and now sat through an entire opera. To my delight, during our shows on the beach at the Gold Coast, I witnessed one beautiful young lady around seven or eight years old come back to see the show three days in a row.


We had our share of challenges too! Our sound engineer Andrew Snook did an amazing job at embracing the unique environment of an open tent on the beach, with the loud roar of the waves and the occasional overhead helicopter (thankfully the ensemble were amplified). We crossed our fingers as the tent withstood low-grade cyclonic winds, and even found an amazing replacement when, sadly, and our lovely cellist was rushed to the emergency department and had to pull out of the show one day before the premiere. If all this taught me anything, it's to laugh when you want to cry and immediately get working on a solution. Thankfully, it all came together so much better than we could have expected.

I could go on and on about what I've learned during this process, and continue the self-reflection now that the mad rush is over. Given how receptive the children were to the music and story, could I have been more adventurous? Did I strike the perfect balance? Did I extract enough colour and variety from the trio of instruments? Could I have done more? For a perfectionist like myself, the answer is always yes, but I'm incredibly proud of the beautiful and successful work our team created in such a short amount of time. It has been a joyous collaboration.

My PhD supervisor, Elliott Gyger recently said something along the lines of 'Most composers come out of the process of writing an opera feeling one of two ways. You're either all in and addicted to the art form for life, or you realise it wasn't for you. There's rarely a middle ground.' I'm fortunate to report that I'm all in, and looking forward to sinking my teeth into more large-scale dramatic works in the future, for children and adults alike.

The Owl and the Pussycat will next appear at the Big Little Day Out/Under 8s week in Gladstone, 22-24 May. Keep an eye out for potential performances in Queensland (Maryborough, Cairns, Sunshine Coast, Brisbane and Bundaberg) throughout the remainder of 2018.

AMC resources

Lisa Cheney - AMC profile
The Owl and the Pussycat:- performances 22-24 May (Glen Eden, Queensland) - event details in the AMC Calendar

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