A few weeks ago I watched forty-eight children rehearsing The Crackle. Since then I’ve been watching adult rehearsals. Now it’s riveting to see, for the first time, the two put together.
The people who coach these kids are quite extraordinary. Suzi Zumpe, joint artistic director of the Royal Opera House’s Youth Opera Company,
and Karen Gillingham share the action, drama and music.
The children know the musical score as well as any professional now. They say hello to the baritone Andrew Dickinson who will sing George – their nerdish schoolteacher who lets the devil loose on them through electronic music – and to soprano Stephanie Marshall the parent who at first tries to help George and then, too late, to stop him.
Andrew and Stephanie jump about with the kids in the warm-up. Suzi gets them all singing, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? in lots of different tones. “Quick, the captain’s coming, and this is your mate: you don’t want the captain to see. Put him in the long boat till he’s sober! Ssh – urgent – you’re conspirators! Now you’re angry with him. Put him in the scuppers with the hosepipe on him – and you’re giggling!”
They are getting singing technique – all those quick consonants – and stage sense together.
Karen divides all 48 children plus the two adult singers into five groups. Each group has three and a half minutes to tell the story of one of the opera’s acts. It takes my breath away to see ten year olds working out a little script and getting over the dramatic essentials of a complex scene so quickly.
“They’re used to doing that,” said Karen. “Three and a half minutes is a luxury. They usually have only two.”
The children are wonderful, all shapes and sizes, all enthusiastic, all different, all alive. One thing this opera is going to do is crackle with their energy.
“Fantastic training,” I say to Suzi. ”What happens when they reach the age limit?”
“Well they have to look like children on stage. They start and 9 and stop at13.”
(Afterwards, I’m really glad to hear many kids I talk to say they are going on to other part time training courses. How could they not be in love with drama and music, after all this?)
Now the opera itself. Their energy zips through the studio. Karen and Suzi, with Tim Murray the conductor contain it, channel it and let it rip. They are like a ginger ale fizzing out of the bottle all over the stage.
“Are you excited to watch it all come together?” I ask Matthew Herbert the composer –director and sound artist extraordinaire.
“Fantastic,” he said. “I wanted the piece to start quietly: with the audience not having any sense that this demonic energy of the children is going to come bursting in.”
At one point the children suddenly hush: they hear Mephistopheles stalking the classroom. Sound is everything in The Crackle. George has a brilliant mind and a pathetic tunnel-vision personality.Andrew Dickinson is playing him very convincingly. George has heard Mephistopheles already. He is the one who let him in. The devil’s voice will be sung by Bryn Terfel, as in Gounod’s Faust.
Mephistopheles never appears: his sounds are made by foley artist Barnaby. who will sit in the orchestra pit, part of the orchestra. Matthew wants him to be visible so the audience sees him as a player – they will know the devil’s sounds are being made live.
“What will you wear?” I ask Barnaby . “A scarlet and black bow tie?”
“Devil’s horns, perhaps.” He is still working out exactly what props he needs to get the right sounds. “I want a Gestapo-ish vibe,” he says.
Now Barnaby is on the mike, clopping his hard shoes on a hollow platform and at the moment what he is holding in his arms is: a white patent leather shoe, a pair large leather gloves and a leather jacket.
He rubs them together in front of the all-important mike. They make a beautifully sinister shushing sound and the kids freeze.
“You’re terrified and fascinated,” says Karen, “Now what? “
The children brandish little tubes pof paper int h air and start unrolling them. Th edevil has suddenly given them the code for the new app. The crackling of paper spreads through the studio. It will be amplified by mikes and will trigger an explosion of coloured lights. Everything in this opera is sound, from the devil to the apps that so excite the once-bored kids.
I catch Matthew’s eye and he grins. After years of work, his opera – with its cutting-edge far-out technology, the gorgeous voices and urgent acting of Andrew and Stephanie, and the bubbling disciplined energy of the kids, is coming fantastically alive.
It is going to be a most extraordinary experience, all round.