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Benjamin Britten: Noye’s Fludde – at Eötvös 10 Cultural Centre

Studying cultural events taking place in Hungary we can happily conclude that in spite of all sorts of austerity measures, initiatives aiming to enhance the art education of the youth have not come to an end. We have to educate the audiences – or simply the well-balanced generations – of the future: fortunately, more and more people seem to be acting in this spirit, which is already fairly widespread in many countries around the world. This was the motivation behind performing Noye’s Fludde, Britten’s children’s opera in the Festival Theatre of the Palace of Arts in September, as part of the Mahler Festival. Those involved in the performance had talked about the issues of preserving and saving values on several occasions in the media prior to the premiere. Children are extremely receptive to all sorts of impacts and influences, and today they are targeted by many. Thus it is not at all certain that they will show interest in this valuable culture in the end. To be able to make the right choice, they need assistance and careful guidance. They need a Noah’s Ark to save them from the flood of mass products, mass culture, they need to be steered towards music and then with the help of music they can grow up to be healthy adults – with healthy minds and souls.

Performances staged at education institutions can reach out to more children than those in cultural institutions; accordingly, the premiere of Noye’s Fludde was followed by several performances at schools, and finally school children from the 6th district of Budapest went to see the production at Eötvös 10 Cultural Centre, an event organised by the Aladár Tóth School of Music. The introductory speech about the most important features of the play was delivered by the director of the school hosting the event. The explanations were perhaps a bit too educational and direct – while the younger children sitting in the front rows listened attentively to the definitions of the costume designer and scenist, the older teenagers taking the back seats were less attentive

Fortunately, the director-conductor, György Philipp speaks the language of children very well. He grabbed the microphone before the performance started to teach the audience how to get actively involved in the performance. The opera contains several hymns that are very well-known in Anglo-Saxon culture, so originally, the audience had the chance to join in by singing these melodies. Here, everybody received the music and we rehearsed the songs with the help of the conductor, as well as the sound effects of the storm that brought the flood. The children’s chorus was clear and beautiful even the first time, though they were also supported by those performing in the opera. György Philipp handled the children’s less constructive attitudes as well, scolding those not paying attention with a sense of humour: should someone’s mobile phone disturb the performance, they will immediately stop and start it again – he said. In the end, teenagers who were looking at each other with some embarrassment when singing joined in clicking their fingers and clapping.

As regards the career of the young director-conductor, his goals are taking a very specific shape: opera performances for children and young people to bring them closer to this genre, with linguistic references and realia that are well-known to this age group, using a relatively simple visual language, which makes the production easy to transport and stage at various venues. I must admit that for me, Bastien and Bastienne (the review of which was published on our website) was not convincing, I felt it exaggerated at several points and a great number of solutions were done for their own sake. This time, however, maybe due to the more moderate adaptation or the genre of a children’s opera or the introductory theatre context, the alterations fitted the performance as a whole and provided ample justification for the approach.

The parameters of the performance were largely identical with those of the premiere in September. There are only four grown-ups in the play, two singers (Noye and his wife: Péter Cser and Kornélia Bakos), an actor (the Voice of God: Zsolt László) and a dancer (Krisztián Gergye). It was indeed a pleasure to see that the popular and recognised artists participating in the premiere at the prestigious venue were just as dedicated and committed when playing to groups of school children. The children of Noye, their wives, the friends of Noye’s wife and the animals were played by children, and there were many children musicians in the orchestra as well (Britten composed some orchestral parts expressly for children).

There were some changes in the performance adjusted to specific circumstances though: the young boy playing the Bear made some references in his introduction to supernatural heroes and the approaching apocalypse in addition to remarks about vicious teachers coming along with children and directors delivering endless speeches (which was especially funny in light of the rather lengthy welcome address). The scenery and the costumes were symbolic, which on the one hand serves the purpose of mobility (the performance was played in the gyms of various schools), and on the other hand can be considered as part of the introduction to theatre: children saw how a theatrical performance works, they saw that it takes only a white robe and a false beard to become Noye, and you need only a couple of planks to have an ark. The most creative part of the scenery and costumes was the representation of animals: children wore 3D animal heads made of two drawings put together. This approach is not far from children’s imagination and maybe later they will not think that realistic costumes and scenery are the most important prerequisites for a good theatrical performance.

The different age groups reacted differently: younger children are enthusiastic and actively involved in singing, tapping and clapping, whereas it is more difficult to entice and captivate teenagers. Though they were open, their attention was more focused on each other than on the performance. I regret to say that some adults sitting in the back row set a bad example by chatting all through the performance. If this is what children see, how can we expect them to behave properly?

Finally, let me touch upon the opinions of the target audience. I asked two groups of children about how they liked what they saw and heard.

The fifth-graders of the Bilingual School of Terézváros liked the music very much, and they were also singing, though once they got confused. “It was strange that the Raven suddenly started to dance” – said a talkative girl referring to the performance of Krisztián Gergye. Then they told me that they were so interested in ballet because many in the class have already been to two ballet performances in the Opera, they saw Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Wayward Daughter (La fille mal gardée).

The sixth-graders of Derkovits Gyula Primary School found the performance interesting. “During the play we saw the representation of God” – a boy says, referring to the letters displayed on the screen when the Voice of God spoke. His class mate liked the animals, though he missed the elephant. For most of them this was the first opera performance they had seen, but they also enthusiastically joined in the singing and would like to see similar performances.

We hope they will have the chance to.

Kata Kondor