The Opus Pocus Live: 1001 Arabian Nights – music education by stealth!
Posted on 28th September 2022 at 15:55
This month we have invited Matt Parry, creator of The Opus Pocus, to tell us how he’s turning his successful audio-book into a live theatre performance with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.
The upcoming production, 1001 Arabian Nights, promises a magical experience for children and a stealthy way of introducing youngsters to orchestral music. Here, he pulls back the curtain to give us a sneak preview of what audiences can expect.
Way back in July 2020, in a very different time, I was asked by The Music Workshop Company to contribute an article to this blog about how to introduce children to classical music, which focused mainly on doing so though storytelling and images, much like how children fall in love with the great romantic film scores of composers like John Williams. This was my thinking behind creating The Opus Pocus: a series of symphonies transformed into funny, action-packed, multimedia stories through which children can discover the magic of classical music.
Fast forward two years and, as post-COVID as we can be at the moment, we are feverishly preparing for our first live concerts of The Opus Pocus: 1001 Arabian Nights next month, with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (BBCNOW) at Hoddinott Hall in Cardiff and Brangwyn Hall in Swansea. Our first release, 1001 Arabian Nights (featuring the inimitable Brian Blessed and the highly imitable Rory Bremner), is an audio-book set to the music of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and an accompanying comic-book, all of which is soon to be combined into a multimedia app. So how does our content translate into a live show?
Having mentioned John Williams already, this provides a clue. It’s basically a film and orchestra concert, much like “Star Wars in Concert”, but with our content being a comic-book, chopped up into strips, “animated” with page turns, fades and highlighted frames, and synced to the actors’ voiceover recordings with the BBCNOW playing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade throughout, as if it were the “soundtrack”. If that sounds complicated then this demo should help make it clear:
Demo with orchestral recording by The Opus Pocus Orchestra
We are confident that this animation, beautifully illustrated by Faye Simms, Matteo Pincelli and ArtMiker Studio, will captivate the young audience from start to finish, resulting in a few thousand children, aged 6 to 10, listening along to Rimsky-Korsakov’s score, without even realising that they are doing so: it’s education by stealth!
But there’s more. Children of this age can’t always be expected to sit still and just listen for an hour, so we have divided up the story into three chapters (loosely speaking movements 1, 2 and 4 of Scheherazade, with excerpts from movement 3) with interactive educational activities between each chapter. These are introduced by a live actor playing the role of Grandma Dingley, the owner of the magical Opus Pocus book (containing hundreds of these classical musical stories) and presenter of the live concert.
You’ll have seen her in the demo clip, so the next question is: how do we bring this comic-book character to life? Indeed, given that this actor is voiced by an old schoolfriend of mine, Sam Morris, the specific question I’ve often asked myself is: how do we turn a hairy man in his forties into a convincing elderly Grandma??
Over to Libby Todd, costume and set designer for multiple theatrical productions on and off the West End, and a sneak peek from our first costume fitting. It’s not the finished product yet – Sam needs a shave amongst other things – but it gives an idea of what goes on behind the scenes to create the magic of theatre and the suspension of disbelief!
What interactive educational activities will Sam oversee? As a multi-talented musician, songwriter, stand-up-comedian and music teacher, specialising in early years, Sam will be engaging the children on the subject of leitmotifs, creativity inspired by classical music and orchestral conducting. This might sound daunting but I don’t think we should ever underestimate children’s ability to learn and absorb some complex ideas, when presented in the right way.
The leitmotifs are a well-known feature of Rimsky-Korsakov’s score: the heavy brass representing the stern (and heavy) Sultan, an evil Genie represented by a muted (and evil) trumpet player, and of course a very skilful solo violinist as the eponymous heroine of the work, who expertly enchants the Sultan to avoid her own death.
Sam Morris as Grandma Dingley: first costume fitting, August 2022
And this connects us to John Williams and our ‘cinematic’ presentation, whose epic space music clearly draws upon this technique with leitmotifs for Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and of course the equivalent of our damaged, angry Sultan: Darth Vader!
Speaking of drawing, our creative activity for children attending the concert is inspired by our own transformation of a classical score into an action-packed comic-book. With our example on screen, the children will be able to draw their own short comic-strip, set out in the concert programme, inspired by the orchestra playing an especially colourful section of the Scheherazade score. The concert will also be available to view on iPlayer later, with a downloadable programme so that children can join in with this activity at home, too.
For the conducting, we will be providing every audience member (adults too!) with an Opus Pocus wand... this is a magical baton bestowed with the preternatural, sorcerous power of ancient harmonic musical resonance, that can control an entire orchestra of profane, unruly musicians. It might look like a glow-stick, but it can create incredible worlds of sound, as our conductor Greg will demonstrate through different 'spell shapes’ woven by this wand, magically causing the orchestra to play with different time-signs, tempos and textures.
Last but not least is the orchestra itself. We are delighted to be premiering with the BBCNOW and the concert will celebrate these incredible artists, providing an insight into their enigmatic craft, and touch upon issues such as why bassoons are sometimes confused with baboons. But first and foremost, the aim of the show is for children of all backgrounds to discover and experience the incomparable sound of a live orchestra, with accessibility at its core.
Much in the same way that children discover the magic of theatre through pantomime, we want to create the equivalent for orchestras in concert halls. That’s The Opus Pocus Live: 1001 Arabian Nights. Funny, camp, beautiful, action-packed concerts through which children can discover the magic of classical music, and featuring a man in a dress.
The Opus Pocus Live: 1001 Arabian Nights with BBCNOW will be showing at:
Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff from 13-14th October (tickets exclusively available for schools)
Hoddinott Hall, Cardiff on15th October (tickets on general sale)
Brangwyn Hall, Swansea on 30th October (tickets on general sale).
Visit the BBCNOW website to purchase tickets.
This concert features The Opus Pocus: 1001 Arabian Nights animation with the voices of Brian Blessed, Rory Bremner, Jess Murphy, Nigel Garton and Sam Morris. Orchestra will be conducted by Greg Arrowsmith and Grandma Dingley performed live by Sam Morris. Written and directed by Matt Parry.
A free Opus Pocus activity pack for schools and homes will be available to download from the BBCNOW website, relevant to key stages 1 and 2, with 6-10 lesson plans, English/Welsh translation with accessibility instructions for visually and/or hearing-impaired students.
Share this post: