Paws and Padlocks


These days I approach the premiere of a new opera with a heavy tread. Will it even have singing? a story? characters? Operas performed by the under-11s however seem a safer bet. I’ve written recently about my enjoyable visit to Barnsley to see The Magic Paintbrush; and during this beautiful weekend I hotfooted it to Blackheath, where Paws and Padlocks (music by Kate Whitley, libretto by Sabrina Mahfouz) was opening.

Paws and Padlocks, set in a zoo after closing time, deftly explores a pointed dilemma of our anthropocene era. Ayesha, an idealistic zookeeper, sung by Claire Wild, decides to free all the animals in the zoo (cue many young singers and quite a few adults too in adorable animal suits) and send them back to their real homes in nature. But one of her young helpers overhears Ayesha’s friend Zac (Nicholas Merryweather) on the phone. Instead of driving the zoo creatures in his lorry back to their habitats, as he claims, he’s going to trade their skins, tusks and so on. When I told people about the opera after my visit, we immediately began to discuss the problem. There’s a general feeling that animals maybe shouldn’t be in zoos; but far worse things are happening to them in the wild, where avaricious humans are preying on them. What should we do for them ?

In the opera, catastrophe is dramatically averted at the last minute (as is the way of operas) when the tigers firmly encourage all the other creatures back into the zoo where at least they will be safe for the time being. I loved the final chorus which covered these events, with the whole cast singing rather thoughtfully ‘I think they’ll be ok for now’; unusual, and welcome, to hear an opera concluding with uncertainty and pragmatism expressed in music. And rather lovely music, with a beautiful orchestration played by the Multi-Story Orchestra under Christopher Stark.

Pictured – the green plant-holder piano at Blackheath Halls.

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JUDITH WEIR

Composer