Opera students put on a performance for all children

June 14 / 138

 Emma Muir-Smith (left) as Hansel and Cristina Russo (right) as Gretel. Photo: Hilary Walker.
Emma Muir-Smith (left) as Hansel and Cristina Russo (right) as Gretel. Photo: Hilary Walker.

Students from the  Master of Music (Opera Performance) course have performed a ‘relaxed’ production of Hansel and Gretel with Victorian Opera, designed to be accessible to children with sensory and communication disorders.

Relaxed performances welcome children with learning disabilities, Down Syndrome, autism spectrum conditions and other disorders that may cause them to find regular opera performance difficult or intimidating.

There is a relaxed attitude to audience noise and movement, and some changes were made to the light and sound effects. 

This is the first time Victorian Opera has run a relaxed performance.

The cast began the opera by introducing themselves and their characters and an on-stage narrator lead the children through the more frightening parts of the performance.

The opera students also adapted their performances – the house lights were on and they could see the audience.

The cast of eight from the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music performed the opera entirely in German, and the narrator helped explain the story. 

Mezzo-soprano Emma Muir-Smith, who played Hansel, said the reaction from the audience made the performance incredibly rewarding.

“The kids were just wild and loved it; they were laughing their heads off,” she said. 

“It’s so nice to give a performance that you know is really appreciated and really makes a difference.

“You can see it on their faces and it’s so nice to – at the risk of sounding totally corny – give something back.”

Tenor Michael Petruccelli played the Sandman, the Sleep Fairy who puts Hansel and Gretel to sleep.

He said he loved the children’s unrestrained reactions to the music and acting.

“It was a beautiful and fresh thing, especially in opera,” he said.

“It’s amazing how the fresh and overtly positive reaction from the audience led our confidence in our performances to skyrocket, and we could do so much more within our characters on-stage.”

Ms Muir-Smith said the relaxed performance meant in some ways the performers could interact with the audience more than usual.

“When we stop the performance to have a bit of narration, we come out of character and it’s Emma and Cristina (Russo) on-stage instead of Hansel and Gretel,” she said.

“It can be jarring as a performer, but I think it really does engage the audience in a very different and intimate way that you don’t have the opportunity to do in a regular performance.”

Mr Petruccelli said the increased emphasis on engagement with young audiences gave the actor the opportunity to practice the non-vocal aspects of their performances.

“A lot of the time opera is based on the voice and acting is left by the wayside, but this has been a great avenue to push myself as an actor,” he said. 

The production was run as a co-production with Arts Centre Melbourne.

Following the relaxed performance, the cast ran twice-daily shows for school groups at the Art Centre’s Fairfax Studio.

For these shows illustrative storyboards explained the story in place of the relaxed performance’s narrator, rather than traditional opera surtitles.

Victorian Opera Education and Community Engagement Manager Melissa Stark said Hansel and Gretel was an important part of the company’s education program.

“It provides many children with their first experience of the art form, while also being a learning experience for our performers,” she said. 

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