WA Opera’s Our Little Inventor combines the music of Emma Jayakumar and the graphic world of Sher Rill Ng at Maj
The magic of children’s imagination meets the emotional power of opera at the world premiere of Our Little Inventor at His Majesty’s Theater for the October school holidays.
WA composer Emma Jayakumar and writer-illustrator Sher Rill Ng have reimagined Ng’s book for WA Opera, with actress Grace Chow, soprano Rachelle Durkin and conductor Kate McNamara joining a diverse line-up.
Jayakumar says the book is central to the project.
“A really good children’s book is a really effective storyboard on its own. It has a kind of condensed text and the illustrations themselves are very emotive and fill in a lot of the emotional language and body language of the characters,” she says.
“Really great children’s books are loved for this reason, because for children literacy is still developing, a fantastic illustrator can really fill those emotional voids for children. I find them really effective for that sense of form music of a dramatic situation.
The WAAPA alum has a proven track record in children’s books, having adapted May Gibbs’ classic Snuggle Pot and Cuddle Pie for WA Ballet, and Mem Fox’s Wilfred Good and the Gold Partridge for opera.
“Our little inventor was the one who just jumped off the page for me and had all the great elements of this sort of hero quest,” she says.
“Children’s opera is a bit of a misnomer because it really is a family piece. When we say children’s opera, the basic concepts are simplified enough to be understandable by a very young person, but also have many layers of emotion and situation to be appreciated by adults as well.
“So, in general, it’s only dramatic scenes and concepts that are relevant for children, but a very good children’s opera is necessarily a family work that contains a lot of elements for parents and grandparents who are the guardians of their attendance.
“It definitely has a lot of family and parenting themes that will really resonate with them too.”
Our Little Inventor tells the story of Nell, a Chinese-Malaysian Australian girl, who invents a machine to clean up air pollution and goes to town to show everyone.
“She gets a very cold reception from officials and she has one of those waking moments in her development, a moment of loss of innocence,” Jayakumar says.
“But she catches the eye of a woman who’s not necessarily in power but she’s kind of the catalyst to come out and challenge the authorities, and Nell goes back to town with an even bigger and better invention and wins the daytime.
“He has a nice highlight which is about his bigger and better machine and everyone is amazed.
“It has a happy ending. It’s not one of those adult operas about sex and death.
It’s also a story of diversity, an important topic for Jayakumar, who is married to a Sri Lankan and has a brother who is married to a Japanese woman.
“For young people, I noticed, my research doctorate being on children’s opera, there was quite a lot in the media at the time of young people of color or of various ethnicities saying that it’s a shame that, ‘I don’t see myself reflected on screen or in TV characters, and how important it was to see that,’ she says.
Most of the project’s creative leads are women, she notes, and there’s a strong multicultural theme.
“We have a really great Chinese community here in Perth and some really talented singers and actors and I’m delighted we’re sticking with the cast and really featuring them in this play alongside wonderful established opera singers like Rachelle Durkin “, Jayakumar said.
“It’s a beautiful story with a happy ending, a young man who fights against all odds and who triumphs. It’s always a story that we like to see, it’s good news on stage, because the world seems pretty bleak right now, and there are also hints of climate change, because that’s also something very direct in the minds of young people right now.
“One of the other big messages in this piece is that we need to listen to young people because they have valuable contributions, they can achieve great things if they are given a voice in the conversation.”
There is also diversity in the score, which will be performed by musicians from the WA Youth Orchestra.
“There’s a lot of mechanical music in this piece,” says Jayakumar. “There’s the small machine that Nell makes and there’s the second, larger machine. It’s quite heavily inspired by John Adams, his Short Ride in a Fast Machine, a minimalist approach.
“Nell’s family music is very lush and functionally tonal, so there’s nothing too difficult for young audiences. And it’s pretty Britten-esque, it’s got to be a chamber opera because we don’t have access to incredibly huge resources in the orchestra.
“So I would say it’s very accessible to anyone new to opera, but it’s also a piece that’s not overly simplified and not condescending in any way, and still very high quality.
“Rachelle plays a character named Mrs. Livingston Li, and Mrs. Livingston Li’s music is very much based on Albert Herring’s character of Miss Wordsworth. It’s quite virtuosic and high and suits Rachelle perfectly because she has wonderful coloratura.
“And we have a late change, a wonderful young baritone named Brett Peart, he plays our male villain, the mayor character.
“But we also have a lot of little mini roles for members of the West Australian Young Voices. They do a lot of small solo roles as well as being wonderful little choir members.
“And Grace Chow, our leader. She’s been very prominent on TV at the moment, most recently in Mystery Road: Origins, graduated from the Bachelor of Performing Arts course here at WAAPA and she’s a wonderful young actress, so we’re really excited to have with us.
Our little inventor is at Maj on October 1st and 2nd.