We attended Welsh National Opera’s family concert at St David’s Hall in Cardiff on the Sunday before Halloween. This was the latest in a series of WNO family concerts whose philosophy is “to introduce the whole family to the world of classical music and opera”. This year’s concert was (unsurprisingly!) on the theme of Halloween and the stated intention was to put on an afternoon of “music, magic and mayhem”
The concert involved the full WNO Orchestra performing a programme of classical music and opera pieces with guest singers and the WNO youth and community choir.
For two hours before the show began there were pre-performance activities held in St David’s Hall’s foyers. These included wig, make-up and instrument demonstrations. Nia and Megan thoroughly enjoyed trying on different wigs and testing out different hair colours and styles while Rhydian looked very dapper with a moustache! The lady putting the wigs on the children was extremely patient with us! Unfortunately, as always seems to be the case at similar events, the queue for face-paints was prohibitively long meaning lots of children were left disappointed although those that managed to get to the front of the queue did look stunning!
There was also a treasure hunt across the different floors of the Hall and lots of excited children ran around in Halloween costumes searching for pumpkins and treasure chests.
On entering the Hall itself the children were fascinated to watch the orchestra members tuning their instruments and preparing for the show. Today’s children are so used to their senses being (over) stimulated by overload from screens and social media that I did wonder whether such a simple set up would hold their attention over the course of a whole concert. They were excited by the programme and identified the obvious highlights (the “Ghostbusters” theme, Hedwig’s Theme from Harry Potter and the “Jaws” theme) as the songs that they were looking forward to. Presumably the intention of the show’s producers was to intersperse such obvious crowd-pleasers with lesser known songs in order to introduce the children to new pieces of music and new styles of music.
The show was compered by the actor Steve Speirs, who we all thought we recognised, although we weren’t sure from where! He was full of energy and enthusiasm and his running jokes (relating to his inability to perform magic tricks, his inability to perform as the Phantom of the Opera and the need for a poor cleaning lady to repeatedly come on stage to clean up after him) were much appreciated by the children.
I don’t think there’s any doubt that the numbers that worked the best were the songs from films, no doubt because they were already known to many of the children. Encouraging the children to shout out “ghostbusters” in response to the famous refrain from the film worked particularly well and the children responded with enthusiasm.
For my children, at least, the operatic pieces were the least successful. They may have been influenced by their mum who, by my own admission, is no great opera fan but it wasn’t helped by the fact that the singers were difficult to hear over the volume of the orchestra. I’m not convinced that the context of the songs was explained in a way that was easy for children to understand either. At the end of the “Cat Duet” by Rossini, Nia commented that “I’ve never heard a cat sing like that”. I don’t think her confusion was helped by the fact that one of the cats was dressed in lederhosen – it later became clear that this was because the same singer was later to play the part of Hansel but at the time it was quite frankly perplexing!
I would have liked to have seen more interaction between Steve Speirs and the orchestra. The short film “Introducing the Orchestra” was a highlight for me with the orchestra members’ enthusiasm for their instruments and for their performances palpable and inspiring. Their simple descriptions of why they chose their instruments (the trombone player’s “I’m loud, it’s loud”, the flutist describing her instrument as being “small and shiny” and making “high notes, bird-like”) were perfectly pitched for such a young audience.
The WNO youth and community choir was under-used. Megan, in particular, kept asking why they weren’t singing more. The numbers that they did contribute to came alive with their singing and it was lovely to watch them on the two big screens suspended above the stage.
So all in all this show was definitely a hit! The children loved the pre-show activities and many of the orchestral and choral numbers. They were less enthusiastic about the operatic pieces and I am not sure that there will be any new opera fans in our house! I am hopeful, however, that the orchestra will have inspired the kids to practice their musical instruments with renewed enthusiasm!