I had a real treat in being invited to see Spitalfields Music’s Musical Rumpus: Catch a Sea Star last week. The visit took me to a newly built community centre in the east end of London, where Spitalfields has committed to realising its vision of outreach to families living in deprived areas. The audience was made up of just such families, including young mothers, child-carers and even one very brave Dad.
This Dad’s daughter stole the show as she innocently danced around and around the set, responding with her whole body to the music she was hearing. She had a joyful smile on her face for the entire show and was completely unabashed and uninhibited by the opera singers on stage, who interweaved themselves in and around her wonderful dance moves. Once her Dad had been reassured by a nod and a smile from the Spitalfield’s Learning & Participation manager, Chloe Shrimpton – sitting on stage in costume to help interpret, encourage, protect, and guide the more interactive children – he visibly relaxed. He not only allowed his daughter to express herself without worrying about the distraction, but lovingly praised and encouraged her every time she returned for his reassurance.
Parents who had previously been wondering what insanity had compelled them to bring their young tearaways to an opera production also then relaxed. One by one, they found a more comfortable position on the floor than the one they adopted at the start where they were ready to pounce, catch and drag-back their little ones off the set which had been laid out so enticingly close to their child’s eye line. And deliberately so, for this is opera for babies with a difference.
Babies and toddlers are very much welcomed to be part and parcel of the performance experience. Spitalfields Music has been committed to growing its offer for early years audiences over the last four years, despite this being one of the most expensive artforms with which to reach out to families. And yet, one of the most accessible.
Communicating with our youngest children in song transcends the boundaries of race, culture, language, and social inhibitions. It speaks to the heart of where our language first began – in the first trimester of pregnancy when our aural capacity started to develop enough to be able to hear the sing-song sounds of our mother’s voices. Then, at some point in the second and third trimesters, our brain’s emotional centre matured enough to connect those sounds to a feeling of warmth and care in its purest form, completely secure and protected from anything and everything. No wonder new-born babes crave the soothing tones of their mother’s voice, combined with their loving touch, to feel completely at peace. It’s amazing to think that whilst we were still in our mother’s womb, we were developing a penchant for singing!
Anyone who has heard opera singing will know that this can be such an intensely rich and sensory experience that resonates both physically and emotionally through our whole bodies and minds. It’s a bit like having an emotional jacuzzi! Put that in the context of a small community centre where the volume of the opera singer is magnified several times, and you’ll understand why young children simply cannot help but respond with all the expressive languages they have in their bodies and voices.
So it’s refreshingly wonderful to see the Spitalfields performers and production team embracing this with such genuine understanding and enthusiastic passion. A passion which, I might add, does not detract one bit from the artistic integrity of the piece. Whilst I have never heard Bach being played out to a narrative about a loveable dog (humorously referred to in the programme as ‘Bach meets Bark’) and a sea king who helps his urchins (the babies) to search for sea stars; the ebb and flow of the story perfectly matched the joyful and witty tone of the score. As well as choosing a narrative that empathised with Bach’s style, the thoughtfulness of creating characters and activities that had an affinity with younger children’s interests (stroking and cuddling the dog; hiding and seeking for the star; tactile exploration with textured fabrics; continual kinaesthetic movement and even some water-play), was what made the show so engaging. Some arts companies talk about finding very young children hard to engage. On the contrary – these hugely intelligent and purposeful beings are easy to engage when you take the time to become tuned in to their interests and give them the trust, space and time to initiate and build on those interests. All children are doing is trying to make sense of the world by making connections. If an arts experience helps them to do this, their engagement, focus and concentration will last a surprisingly long time. Indeed, this performance held the attention of a 6-month old for a straight 45 minutes without caring once about food or sleep. I would say that’s a pretty good sign of Spitalfields having got it about right for that child.
Spitalfields has shown tremendous ‘in-tune-ness’ with their younger audiences and it’s a joy to see them progress their productions in this direction (I blogged about their developmental approach to early years in their last Musical Rumpus show here). Alongside this comes a highly creative team who are becoming more and more entrepreneurial in a bid to enable their early years programme to become financially independent, in order to be sustainable for a very long time to come. That kind of thinking will take them a very long way indeed.
You can read the article in full, including an interview with co-creator Sam Glazer here.