Let me take you back to September 1956. There was a queue of young children waiting to start their school year, but it was not just the first year’s intake who felt nervous and excited about starting at a new school, it was all of them, as well as the teachers and even the Headmaster, Mr Cobbett. The reason was that it was the day on which Richmond Hill County Primary School first opened its doors. Some had been at Cross Green Lane but were all moved to the brand new school as the old one had been converted into a Secondary Modern for 11 year-olds and upwards.
The reason I am imparting this piece of history is that I was one of those given a free transfer from the dark, dingy, crumbling Victorian edifice to this ultra modern cedar-clad building which would be my place of learning for the next five years, except for a few months in 1959 when my family decamped to Wakefield. I must admit to feeling the same trepidation on entering the portals of what is now Richmond Hill Academy, some sixty-four years later when I contacted the school a few months ago to see if I could have a look round for old times’ sake and as I was doing some writing which I thought might benefit from a fresh visit. You know you are old when the school which you moved into on its first day open has been demolished and rebuilt, it still had the new building smell about it though and in a way, brought back memories more vividly than if it had been a decaying pile.
Well, here I was again, courtesy of Opera North who were staging their production based on the Dr Seuss classic, Green Eggs and Ham, by Robert Kapilow. I had been invited to see it at the Central Library in February but I couldn’t make it so I asked if I could go to this performance instead. Things worked out brilliantly because I wanted to know how children who would not otherwise have had a chance to see the production would react. It was £6 to go to the library but here it was free and so those whose parents could not afford the admission, or had absolutely no inclination to go anyway, would get to enjoy a live professional opera performance for once in their lives, and hopefully get them hooked.
I took my seat at the back of the Hall on an unfeasibly low bench for a hulk of my size but the event took away all thought of discomfort. I watched the pupils from the earlier years’ classes file in. The show is aimed at children aged between four and seven years old. When they had been lined up they were told to sit cross legged on the floor and in marched another class. Once they were all assembled, the compère took to the floor and explained what was to happen.
Eric Morecambe used to tell a story about the singer Des O’Connor who once walked onto the stage one Monday evening at the Glasgow Empire, took one look at the audience, and passed out. I believe that the obvious expectations written on these children’s faces would have had the same effect on me but she was brilliant and had the children in the palm of her hand instantly. She employed a clever trick, and one which I am sure the teachers who witnessed it will be using for years to come. She asked everybody in the Hall to hold up both hands with palms facing forward and to wiggle their fingers whilst lowering their arms to make it look as though it was raining. She said that they should keep really quiet whilst doing this, which they/we did. She then said that whenever someone on stage or in the orchestra repeated the action then they should as well, keeping equally quiet as the first time. What a masterstroke! At various points in the afternoon when excitement took over, there would be a downpour indicated by one of the performers and the place would revert to silence.
Before the opera started the players came to the front of the performance area to tell us about their instruments, which they did brilliantly. First up were the flute and the bassoon. The flautist played a couple of high notes and then the bassoonist blew into her instrument but nothing came out, much to the hilarity of the audience. She explained that, whereas the flute was played by blowing across a hole – the technique of which was illustrated by using an empty bottle, the bassoon needed a reed. She blew the reed which produced a bit of a pathetic noise, once again causing much laughter which soon stopped when she inserted it into the bassoon and gave out a blast which sounded like an oil tanker warning a pedalo to get out of the way.
There followed the clarinet, trumpet, French horn, double bass, percussion, and the piano. Finally we came to the conductor who explained that it was her job to keep everyone in time, which she did admirably well whilst initiating a couple of rain showers on the way. Once the audience understood the part that everyone played in the event, the performance began. The two singers, Gabriella Cassidy and Susie Buckle, were obviously of superb voice and their acting as good as any children’s entertainers you could wish to see.
As you would expect when dealing with an audience with a short attention span, it didn’t last very long, actually that is probably not the case, it just didn’t seem to last very long as was so well done. Any short reprimands from the teachers to the audience members were mainly because they kneeled up rather than sat down in order to get a better view, obscuring that of the child behind them. On the whole I would say that they were as well behaved as the ’serious’ opera audiences, some of which have contained more than their fair share of numpties lately!
The story revolves around Sam-I-Am who pesters his mate Guy-Am-I, who is a bit of a grump, to eat a plate of green eggs and ham. The book is aimed at new readers and contains exactly fifty different words. Obviously most are repeated but it is an ingenious concept. Sam follows Guy to eight locations whilst nagging him, and with three animals, until he finally relents. During this pursuit around the various locations the singers came into the main body of the audience and Sam offered the plate of food to some of the children, who pretended to look at it and take some to eat. One lad, however, took a fancy to the (imitation) fork stuck in the ham, grabbed it and clung on for dear life while Sam tried to chase Guy, thus dragging the child behind him. Priceless!
It goes without saying that Sam eventually wears down the resistance of Guy and gets him to eat the meal, which he finds that he loves, thus the moral is revealed that you should not close your mind to experiences until you have tried them. A philosophy I have followed throughout my life only drawing the line at bungee jumping. It also goes without saying that, even though performed in a school hall, the musicianship, singing, costumes and direction were first class. I have said it before and will say it again, we are so lucky to have Opera North in our wonderful city.
Should they ever be in need of a new conductor, however, there was one girl siting at the back who began copying the arm movements of the present one. When she began her air conducting she was a beat or two behind but she soon stopped mimicking and trained her gaze on the orchestra and singers thereafter keeping perfect time.
The work was Directed by Pia Furtado and the Designer Cecilia Carey. The musicians made up from members of the Orchestra of Opera North was conducted by Sonia Ben-Santamaria.
Green Eggs and Ham is part of the In Harmony charity set up by Opera North to bring music to schools, especially those which would not otherwise be able to provide it. Just watching the children at this event shows what a great project it is, as did looking at the instruments at the back of the room which have been supplied by them for the use of the pupils.
If you would like to contribute to this wonderful resource, please go to https://www.operanorth.co.uk/support-us/donate where I am sure that any contribution will be most welcome.
Green Ham and Eggs is still touring and can be seen at the venues below:
Thursday 12th and Friday 13th March at 16.30 on each day The Lowry, Salford Quays
Sunday 22nd March at 11.30 and 14.00. The National Centre For Early Music, York
For more details and booking please go to:
For further events suitable for all the family please go to:
All photographs by Samantha Toolsie