Tune in to an opera for tots

Scottish Opera's latest offerings for babies and toddlers are hitting a high note, writes Julia Belgutay

A night at the opera is usually a somewhat serious affair: grown-ups in their most glamorous attire focused intently on catching the strains of Verdi and Wagner.

But there's not a tuxedo in sight in the audience of Scottish Opera's latest production - a 30-minute sensory extravaganza for babies aged 6-18 months.

Hugely successful in Scotland and internationally, BabyO and SensoryO - a second show designed for toddlers aged 18 months to three years - will make their Edinburgh Festival debut this year, introducing babies, toddlers and primary schoolchildren with additional support needs, to the world of operatic music.

Set in a garden, BabyO opens with feathers falling slowly from the heavens. Halfway through the performance, rubber ducks are handed out to each child - research shows that having something to play with improves concentration.

The babies and their families are seated in a circle around a purpose-built grassy arena, and watch three singers - there are only vocals and a vocal backing track, no musical instruments - parade a variety of objects; there are silver fish on sticks, welly boots and a washing line. As they do so, they sing.

"We chose a structure that the babies are familiar with, which is that of a day. It starts in the morning and ends at night time," says Fiona Drury, co-creator of BabyO, creator of SensoryO and composer for both. "Rather than a story, it is a series of events," she adds.

She says that sitting the babies in a circle where they are able to track the trajectory of items offers a very intimate setting.

"It is a powerful experience for adults as well, getting to experience opera singers that close," she says. "You can actually feel the vibration from their voices. At this age, babies are trying to explore their voice - it's a real exploration of sound. I have been stunned by their reaction. They are immediately relaxed and engaged."

In SensoryO, the adventure starts before the young audience sits down - children are given "lion tails" to wear so that they can become part of the opera's narrative.

The story takes children from the reading of a bedtime story on to a fantasy dream journey in which encounter a friendly red-eyed lion and a train, before falling asleep under the stars.

Like BabyO, the opera is performed by three Scottish Opera singers and is designed to be a relaxing experience.

But in this show the singers are joined by a percussionist, who takes on the role of a train driver on the dream journey. The words in the story are all performed in rhyme - "a powerful medium for children of this age", Ms Drury says.

The children actively participate - for example, in a hide-and-seek sequence near the beginning in which the train driver hides and the children have to find him.

Scottish Opera has been working with children for more than 30 years, but even Jane Davidson, its head of education, said the idea for the two operas was greeted with raised eyebrows when she first suggested the idea.

In an interview with the BBC, she said: "They did think I was mad. Lots of laughter about four hours of Wagner and babies crying throughout.

"But it made sense. Babies have very poor sight to begin with but their hearing is acute from a very early stage and we started to wonder if they could spot the difference in soprano and baritone and in different notes."

Kerryn Kirkpatrick took her one-year-old daughter Marloe to see BabyO at a previous performance. "She is so active that I wasn't sure she would be able to keep sitting there for half an hour. But she absolutely loved it," she says.

"Aside from the singing, she was quite interested in the other things, like the feathers coming down and the bits of fabric. "In the car on the way home, I put on the CD they give you after the show and noticed she was trying to do the sounds along with the CD."

BabyO and SensoryO are among a number of plays and events provided for young people at this year's Edinburgh Fringe, including Titus, which an adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus aimed at children over the age of 11.

Tim Norwood, author and co-director of the new production, has managed to inject "catchy songs, jokes, and moments of physical comedy". And he has simplified the storyline to make it easier to follow and less gruesome than the original.

Iain Johnstone's one-man show One Giant Leap, which explores the history of human life in the universe through the story of one father's journey into space and time as he tries to help his son with a project, also makes its debut at the Fringe.

Described as "part-theatre, part lecture", it has an extensive online education pack, with activities linked to a range of Curriculum for Excellence experiences and outcomes.



Friday 9 to Monday 26 August, 10am daily, excluding Monday 12 and Monday 19 August.


Friday 9 to Monday 26 August, 11.30am daily, excluding Monday 12 and Monday 19 August.

Tickets for all the shows are available through the Fringe box office. Visit www.edfringe.com.

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