In previous posts about operas for babies and our OTOYOTOY, I have been trying to reflect on some of the discoveries we've made in creating and performing with the very youngest children. Consideration #1 is a simple one: fun.
There are vital ingredients for fun: you need people in the room who are playful; you need imaginative ideas and situations, and you need that little extra something that creates a surprise. When I am looking for fun, one of the most reliable sources is the music of Saskia Sunshine Lane. She wrote THE OOVATOOLA SONG (click to listen) that opens our show, and you will find all the ingredients and more. Our performers: Saskia, along with Onome Djere (pictured above), Nick Demeris and Sasha Bogdanowitsch are expert, playful vocal improvisers. When we first created the show, we were joined by three other amazing singers: Jascha Hoffman, Emily Eagen, and Sofia Ribeiro. The song itself is sung in an invented language, courtesy of our librettist Zoe Palmer:
Ee yay O (I am)
Osay iyo (sunrise)
Moonkulunkulo (moon go)
Cheep cheep cheep!
Aton atonton (sun)
Ee yay O
Saskia sets the words with a strong Afro-Latin groove (the bass line is a fragment of a clave rhythm) and a lilting tune in B major. She uses a slightly irregular phrase structure to keep you guessing, and yet it seems the most natural music in the world. In the middle of one of those irregular phrases comes the bird-mimicking: "Cheep-cheep-cheep!" not sung on pitches at all, and I have yet to meet the audience that does not chuckle at that little surprise moment. Amidst all the invented language, the familiar "cheep" is something we recognize, but it's not really language either! These are the ingredients of delight, all mixed together in a delicious cross-Atlantic collaboration.
(Above, the ball collecting moment from OTOYOTOY; photo credit: Deborah Cabaniss)
More findings, continued from Part I:
Include a mix of fixed and improvised musical structures. To allow for children's vocal contributions, you need moments when there is "space" or silence. You also need structures that will allow the performers to improvise based on what is happening in the room. In a recent performance, a young girl came into the circle with a series of non-verbal yelps and riffs, and Nick Demeris, who plays OTOYOTOY, entered into a call and response game with her. He had a musical and dramatic continuity he was trying to fulfill, but he was able to let it go and allow her to take center stage. I loved that moment. At the same time, we want moments where the music can take over and entrance. Here is FIREFLY from the end of the show. Give and take musical "room" in equal portions, keeping it relational all the time.
Let the sensory experience be your guide. Last year I was lucky enough to work on an opera for babies in Norway. The piece is called LULLA and is created and produced by dybwikdans, based in Stavanger. When I first arrived there in June of 2017, I was astonished to find that the set was complete. There was no libretto, no score, not even a sense of how the piece would unfold. But there was a very beautiful transparent tent and various tactile and sonic objects. There was already lighting and elements of the sound design. Siri Dybwik and Nils Fossdaal invested in the environment for the children first and trusted that the story and the music would follow. They were right, and you can see the fruits of their labors here.
Cool it with the jazz hands and find your zen. As entertainers and performers, we are used to investing in a role and using our considerable energies to engage our audiences. I attended a play (for adults) this week, and afterwards an actor talked about how hard he was trying to connect with an audience member who was clearly bored or sleepy. When performing with (not for) babies, it is the opposite. To create room for them, to achieve a platonic incompleteness, we have found we need to create an intentional mix of performance stances. Sometimes you can be eye to eye with a child, but too much is inhibiting. Children need their own space, too, so as performers we acknowledge it is not about how much they are paying attention to what we are doing. It is how much they are paying attention to what they are doing. That is a bigger shift than it might appear - much easier to say than to pull off.
As artists, we are generally trained to create "whole grain, organic" works that stand alone and fulfill an audience's expectations. In creating operas for babies, we aspire to the beauty of incompleteness.
At the beginning of OTOYOTOY, an opera for babies which premiered at Carnegie Hall in 2017, children and their parents enter an empty space, outlined by a circular pool of light on the floor. The children automatically enter the space and play in it. There are a couple of props and bits of fabric on the floor, which immediately become their toys. The event has begun, because the babies have arrived.
One of the challenges of creating a work for the youngest children is making space for them in the work itself. You cannot predict whether any given group of babies will be vocal or quiet, active or sleepy, jazzed or unfazed by what they encounter. It is different every time. If you create traditional singalong moments, you cannot rely on babies to join in the way older kids would. In short, you cannot predict what interactions might look like. So how do you prepare? How do you design a piece that creates the space for children to contribute but does not rely on them for specific outcomes?
Here are some things we have found. Pay attention to the arc of theatrical experience. Story and linear thinking can be part of what you do, but it is not necessary in creating a piece for this age group. But even if you deemphasize story, pay attention to the shape of the experience. It needs to be strong and clear. Does it follow the shape of day from sunup to sundown? Does it follow the shape of a journey from one place to another? Does it follow the experience of a dream? (In OTOYOTOY we do have a kind of a story about a group of imaginary birds who encounter a human who is the spirit of play. But it's a very loosely told tale, more emphasis on the encounter than on traditional dramatic conflict.)
Create opportunities for the audience to do things. In OTOYOTOY, at the climax of the event, our title character opens a bag and scatters hundreds of ping pong balls on the floor. It's a simple but powerful moment which makes an impressive sound and presents the audience with a question: what now? First, we take a moment to register the drama of what has just happened. Then we wait to see what the babies might do. Do they pick up a ball? Do they throw one? Do they watch to see what their mother does? Do they just watch the balls roll away? Then we pick up some empty cloth sacks and open them. And we wait. Invariably, the babies know exactly what to do. They begin to put the balls back into the sack. We do not tell them to; we do not make an announcement that we need help picking up the balls. In fact, as this is going on we do what you always do in an opera - we sing. Sometimes it happens right away and sometimes it takes longer, but it always happens. Along the way, the performers get to negotiate the ball clearing process with the children, and they can bring their characters into contact with the babies in unplanned, improvisational ways. Our imaginary bird characters are determined to clean up the space, and the spirit of play just wants to - you guessed it - play!
Design the experience with play styles in mind. Our librettist, Zoe Palmer, draws on the work of Colwyn Trevarthen (watch him here), a child psychologist, to design the arc of the event experience according to play schema. Some children love to throw things (trajectory), others love to wrap themselves in cloth (envelopment), others - as I do - love to spin (rotation). Zoe creates an architecture of play schema to ensure that children with different orientations to play will see themselves in the piece. They might enter into the piece by playing a game of catch with a ping pong ball or lie down under a swath of fabric. Or they might just watch. But the invitations are part of the design.
More findings in the next post.
Look at any cultural institution and you will most likely find that the age range for which their programs are appropriate begins at about 5 or 6 years old. It was true of the NY Philharmonic when I was education director there (it has since expanded to include 3 and 4 year olds), and it is true of most opera and theater and dance companies in the U.S. today. Children who are younger are generally considered "unready" for the sophistication of the work and the attention span required to sit still and comprehend. As one parent said recently, "If you bring very small children, you just get shushed the whole time." Even in children's theater there is a certain expectation of quiet and focus. The theater companies may be OK with a toddler's interjections, but more often than not, the other parents are not. "They are too young - they should be at home," read the other parents' thought bubbles. (I am not proud to admit that these are phrases I have both thought and said as the parent of older children.)
This is a problem. Neuroscience teaches us that children's brains are developing from the very beginning. Our own experiences teach us that singing to children and playing with them is crucial to their growth and well-being. Mothers and fathers and caregivers of all types need support in these early years - opportunities to immerse themselves in reading and playing and singing. But cultural institutions just play the part of the exasperated father who says to his wife, as the children run rings around them: "You raise them until they are smart enough to have an intelligent conversation with me, and I'll take it from there."
I'd like to suggest there is another way. Create works of art that are custom made for audiences of babies and their caregivers. Flip all the equations. Create works that are rich in sensory experience but do not require absolute stillness or quiet. Create works that allow for improvisation and unpredictability, and cast them with performers who care first and foremost about children. Create works of art that are beautiful and imaginative and willing to play a secondary role in the overall experience. You read that right - the work of art itself cedes its place as the primary focus of attention. Create works that are incomplete without the children's actions and responses.
Along with many colleagues, we have been working on these kinds of projects in the U.K. and in Scandinavia and at Carnegie Hall - operas for babies - and it is a particular and challenging kind of artistic creation. And it only happens when cultural institutions are willing to make room for the youngest children. We are particularly lucky that Carnegie Hall has opened a space for them.
For the last three years, I have been learning about a whole new genre: operas for babies. Here's how it happened. I was trying to deepen my understanding of maternal health, since we had been so involved in the Lullaby Project at Carnegie Hall. I was looking for colleagues and partners with whom I could compare notes. Emily Eagen, my erstwhile lullaby partner here in New York, suggested I listen to a BBC radio documentary piece about lullaby singing at London Hospital. In it, I learned about a teaching artist there named Zoe Palmer. I wrote an email to Spitalfields Music, where I first learned about their music theater pieces for the very youngest. And perhaps even more importantly, they put me in touch with Zoe. Our first Skype call was one of those breathless tumbles that happens when you realize that regardless of the miles in between, you are both doing all the same things in fascinatingly different ways. We could hardly stop talking. I sent Zoe the lullabies we'd been making in NYC, and she sent me videos of the music theater pieces they'd been creating in London. I told Zoe about Moving Star, the improvisatory vocal lab that we run at Carnegie Hall, and she offered to send us some poetry that we might sing. We sent her the recordings of our improvisations, and we realized we might just have the seeds for a Cross-Atlantic collaboration. We set up a Dropbox folder (that still has that name), and began scheming. That eventually led to the creation of OTOYOTOY, pictured above. As we approach the October 2018 revival, I'll be writing more about the journey, which took me to London, to Norway and back again. More soon!