The Civic, Barnsley


Appropriately, much civic pride was in evidence at The Civic, Barnsley’s nifty theatre space in the middle of town, at a performance of Barnsley-based composer Helen Madden’s opera The Magic Paintbrush. I don’t like to name-drop, but I was seated right next to the Mayor of Barnsley, and a great many people from the town had turned up to see this delightful piece, based on a traditional Chinese story well-known in this country thanks to a beautifully illustrated children’s book by Julia Donaldson.

I thought this ‘opera’ version though was somewhat sharper, more involving than the book. It featured large groups of children as performers, demanding quite a lot of simple song and speech material, but many technical aspects impressed me no end. Beautiful abstract images with intense colour saturation were projected throughout the show; at first I guessed they might be by Howard Hodgkin, but later realised (with no disrespect to the great man) that these too were the work of Barnsley’s talented youth. A group of performers circulated from time to time with iPads, creating live art. The score kept moving with a groovy sounding 4-piece band led from the vibraphone; that’s an idea I hope to steal soon. Speaking to Helen during an earlier visit to Barnsley, we discussed the perception of operatic singing; Helen felt (and I agree) that however well opera singing is done, it frightens many people and tends to obscure the words. So she had recruited several adult musical theatre performers who did a fine job; the ‘leading lady’ turned out to be a fourteen year old from a local comprehensive school. And I loved The Emperor, an improvising panto villain meets old-school English actor meets standup comic.

I was thrilled to play a small part in the evening, having written the music to a new school anthem for Greenacre School, the lyrics for which had been sent to me by the pupils. Greenacre is a special needs school, and some of the songlines are quite eye-opening about their earlier life experiences; “no more hiding under tables, I’m open to new things” was one memorable couplet. To my great pride, this premiere was performed as an overture to the opera, accompanied by the splendid Barnsley Met brass band conducted by Alex Francis. Helen had made the brass arrangement – as a non-Yorkshire neophyte I didn’t dare attempt this – and it was amazing to hear my music with those characteristic little cornet fanfares and bouncing tuba chords pouring out. The Greenacre students, in a lively performance, both sang and signed the words – beat that, ENO!

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer

© Judith Weir, 2020