On Sunday I went to the Relaxed Performance of Peter and the Wolf and The Snowman. Normally this would have been my idea of torture but I loved every minute of it.
I had kindly been invited by Opera North to see the programme and decided that the 4.30pm conventional performance would be just the thing but, on reflection, I realised that most people know Peter and the Wolf and The Snowman so rather than review the music I decided to go to the 2.30pm Relaxed Performance and review the event as a whole. Opera North did something similar not long ago with their version of Pucinni’s La Boheme at the Grand Theatre so it must have worked for them to choose to do it again here.
Relaxed Performances are just what they say, having no strict rules of behaviour and conduct, although I am sure that you would be asked to leave should you start fighting, which makes them perfectly suited for those with mental health problems and families with young children. I know that the two pieces are aimed at families with young children but this performance enabled their infant siblings to join them with nobody complaining if they started crying or toddling around. The other ways in which they differ from conventional events is that there are warnings given at the beginning of the show to inform of loud bangs and flashes, although there was none of the latter this time. The house lights are also only half dimmed so that there is not total darkness which had the added benefit of allowing me to be able to read my notes to write this piece, rather than try to decipher what I had scrawled in the pitch black, usually with one line written over another.
Anyone over the age of about 55 will know Peter and the Wolf from the days of Saturday morning radio, especially Children’s Favourites, later rebranded as Junior Choice. Peter’s theme would be on at least every other week, before the trend of requesting chart music was ceded to by the straight-laced BBC. The narration was done brilliantly by Pui Fan Lee. I didn’t realise that I was in the presence of an international superstar until I began researching the participants when I got home, sadly there was no programme. Ms Lee, it transpires, is a ‘former Tellytubby’! I don’t know if there was an acrimonious split or if Tinky-Winky and Po decided to go their separate ways and embark on solo careers or if the series stopped being made, but here she was, doing her own thing, and superbly.
Pui Fan Lee began by outlining the way in which everything would work, including the noise caveats, and proceeded to get the children – and adults – hanging on her every word. She asked us to shout out how many sleeps there were until Christmas which elicited a chorus of high-pitched screams of ’Three!’ and the Orchestra of Opera North began their sonic illustrations of the various characters described by our narrator.
Throughout the story there were illustrations projected on a large screen above the orchestra to reinforce the character which the music was describing. Our guide also provided lots of body language which added to the enjoyment. She was wasted in that suit. I don’t know whether it was because of the advanced warning of the noise made by the tympani section to indicate the hunters’ guns but there were lots of screams and hands over ears when it happened. I must say that I didn’t find it particularly loud so there might have been a hint of autosuggestion here. Whatever, it was better to issue a warning than take someone of a nervous disposition by surprise.
At the conclusion of Peter and the Wolf Ms Lee said that the animated film of The Snowman would be shown and it was duly projected onto the aforementioned screen. Once again she ensured the audience’s attention by saying that when it had finished she would be asking ‘How many toothbrushes did the family have, and what was the boy’s name?’ The soundtrack was played live by the orchestra which I am sure would have been an eye-opener to some of the children who might have thought that the music just happened. I would love to tell you who sang Walking in the Air but I am afraid that, in the absence of a programme, I have no idea, it isn’t on my press release either. Whoever it was did a great job from their half-hidden perch behind the orchestra and the screen. This is not a criticism as, had they been in plain sight then it could well have detracted from the film. I must admit here that this is the first time I have ever seen the film the whole way through and it was enchanting, being just the thing for Christmas.
It goes without saying that the Orchestra of Opera North were their usual magnificent selves which is high praise indeed in that they had to battle against the crying, screaming and running around by some of the audience. The children weren’t much better either! Old joke from an old man.
I got a chance to chat with a couple of families sitting close by and one of them, who had come from Sheffield, was there because their young daughter was doing Peter and the Wolf at school next term. They were not aware about it being a Relaxed Performance when they booked but decided to stick to their plans anyway because of the time. The other one I spoke to said that they also were not aware of its being different to the later performance when they booked but they were glad it was in this format as their children were quite young. This proved to be a sound decision, literally, as one of their offspring was particularly disturbed by the drums in Peter and the Wolf.
What a great way to begin Christmas both for those who would otherwise not have been able to attend a conventional concert and myself who got to witness the full-on no holds barred appreciation by the audience of a great performance by a wonderful orchestra, singer and narrator. Long may they continue.
All photographs provided by Opera North