Theatrical Mash-Up

Theatre and opera combine in little sweep

A band of privileged children takes it upon itself to rescue Sam, the little sweep, from servitude to Foul Frank in the Belfry, Pacific Opera co-production of Little Sweep.

Theatre and opera combine in little sweep

Composer Benjamin Britten was fascinated with the notion of joining communities of music and art makers, so it’s only fitting that the work he considered to be his best is bringing two local arts groups together.

As part of Pacific Opera’s Britten Festival celebrating 100 years since Britten’s birth (he died in 1976), the opera company did exactly as Britten intended when he first presented Let’s Make an Opera/The Little Sweep in 1949. According to POV’s director of artistic administration, Ian Rye, “Britten wrote work that can’t be completed without reaching deep into your community.”

Sweep is the tale of a contemporary town of Average Joe archetypes who set upon making a turn-of-the-century opera. The creation of an opera, from writing to lighting, makes up the first two acts, and the completed opera is performed in the third when a band of privileged children takes it upon themselves to do what the adults won’t — rescue Sam, the little sweep, from servitude to Foul Frank. The result is an exploration of the power of youth, innocence and community.

To bring the production to life, POV struck gold with a Belfry Theatre collaboration. While there has been some cross-mining of talent between the two companies over the years, they’ve never produced a full piece together.

And the production is chock-full of firsts. It’s the Belfry’s first opera. It’s the first time POV has put on any of these Britten works. It’s the first time the parents of 12-year-old Jared Reis (Sam, the little sweep) discovered the extent of their son’s singing talent.

Rye is hoping the production is also the first time infrequent theatre/opera going families make a theatrical night of it. “Families are such busy institutions. I can say that as a father of three,” Rye notes. “Participating in the arts is something that families really have to put effort into, but it rewards like there’s no tomorrow.”

Director Rachel Peake set yet another first, making Sweep her POV and Belfry directorial debut. It’s also the first time she’s worked with more than one child on stage. “I wasn’t sure what the challenges would be,” she says. “But really the only challenge is that they can’t rehearse until they finish school in the evenings. Otherwise, they are complete professionals.”

They may be professionals, but juggling school, rehearsals and an approaching show must weigh on the minds of Sweep’s youngest cohort. Molly Lydon, 13, is one such youth actor with a surprising answer. “It’s not too hard,” she says. “I go to school and do what I have to do there and then I get to come to rehearsal. It’s exciting to do opera!”

Exciting and challenging.

“My favorite part of the play is getting to act like your putting on a play. You get to tune into some things that are real,” Lydon acknowledges. “The hardest part is using our own names. In the first two acts my name is Molly, but I’m not acting like myself. I’m somebody else.” Lydon also plays  the character of Sophie Brook in the third act.

Lydon and the other children have been taking acting classes and rehearsing since December. It’s one of the many ways the Belfry and POV have been collaborating to not only put the children on stage, but to hone their craft. Artistic directors Timothy Vernon and Michael Shamata, of POV and Belfry respectively, have been putting on workshops and playing acting games all December and January. Working on accents, vocal technique and dramatics, the two were also among POV and Belfry staff collaborating on casting decisions in the spring.

“When I came in for rehearsal in January, they [the youth] were used to working together and used to creating. They were in better shape than us adults,” says Peake. But no production is without difficulty. “I’ve seen musical productions at the Belfry before. It’s an amazing space, but this [Sweep] isn’t like musical theatre where the band goes in the back. The orchestra, the actors and the audience need to see the conductor.”

The problem is exacerbated by the Belfry’s lack of an orchestra pit, a fact made less problematic by Britten’s small-by-design orchestra. He wanted it to be easily moved and assembled no matter the community. Still, conductor Giuseppe Pietraroia and his string quartet, percussionist and four-hand piano (one piano, two players) necessitated some creative wrapping about the stage.

Space is a multifaceted challenge for Sweep. Giles Tomkins who plays Foul Frank was also Police Supt. Budd in POV’s production of Albert Herring.

“We’re trained to project into a three thousand seat hall. The belfry has three hundred,” he remarks.

That’s a considerable constriction and another first, this time for the bass baritone. “I’ve never done spoken theatre before. By today’s standards, opera singers are expected to do a great deal of acting,” he says, “but there’s no rhythmic accompaniment that drives the text along. It’s scary!”

When asked if the other opera singers were having difficulty, Tomkins laughs, “I hope so!”

Knowing one of the trained stars has nerves makes the audience participation portion of the evening somehow less scary. That’s right. Audiences will receive lyrics and be conducted by Pietraroia along with the professionals. If you feel the nerves creeping, worry not. There will be singing professionals planted throughout the theatre to round out the lesser-trained voices. “There’s always the worry ‘Will they sing along?’,” admits Peake. “I’m not too worried about it. There’ll be children there. That gives us adults license to sing. We don’t want to be too cool and we want to say to these children ‘it’s okay to sing and express yourself.’” M

Sing out at Let’s Make An Opera/The Little Sweep at The Belfry Theatre (1291 Gladstone) from March 2-10. Tickets are $25-45 at boxoffice@belfry.bc.ca or 250-385-6815.

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