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Music

Opera for the wee ones: Kids have an ear for musical drama

Mermaids strap on rollerskates, and dragon's blood tastes just like ketchup. At the Bayreuth Festival, Richard Wagner's "Ring" is geared to kids, tapping into a musical trend. The future looks rosy for children's opera.

Bayreuth Festival's children's opera logo of a frog holding a ring

Bayreuth has a "Ring" just for its younger listeners

A little quip made the rounds this week in Bayreuth: Rather than appointing the old revolutionary Frank Castorf as the new "Ring" director, the festival might just be better off putting Maximilian von Mayenburg's "Children's Ring" on the Bayreuth Festival's big stage.

A child-friendly version of Richard Wagner's cyle of epic operas entitled "Der Ring des Nibelungen" ("The Ring of the Nibelung") premiered this season on one of the rehearsal stages in Bayreuth, and both young and old in the audience were ecstatic. The strength of the entertaining, ingenious production lay in the fact that rather than pulling viewers' legs, they were taken by the hand and introduced to the great Wagner epos.

Can "The Ring" really be condensed into one and a half hours from the original 16-hour score? This year's production proves the answer is a resounding yes.

Rhine maidens on rollerskates

The Rhine maidens show up on rollerskates; the Rhine Gold is symbolized by a trumpet wrested from the orchestra; Wotan cannot read the "fine print" in the contract with the giants ("who reads the fine print?!"); and young Siegfried thinks dragon's blood tastes remarkably like ketchup. But that's no wonder, since he forged his sword on an old kitchen stove, which had just been fed a violin.

Despite all the quirky, yet clever diversions, Maximilian von Mayenburg and his conductor, Hartmut Keil - producers of the children's version of the "Ring" - do not lose track of Wagner's main themes. They tell the tale of the Ring systematically and convincingly - a story of love and betrayal, of the rise and fall of the hero.

A scene from Richard Wagner's Ring for children

The 16-hour "Ring" score was reduced to a 90-minute, kid-friendly version



"Rule number one is that you that don't assume the kids won't understand it," stressed director Maximilian von Mayenburg. "It's just important to keep the message clear and succinct."

In arranging the production, he did not leave out the tricky bits: "Siegfried dies at the end. People fall in love, a child is born. And kids know that these things are an important part of life," von Mayenburg said.

By the way, Wagner's world has a lot more in common with famous fairy tales than some might think. Alberich's metamorphosis into a lindworm and a toad can be matched with "Puss in Boots" by the Brothers Grimm. And the woman who sleeps in the fire could be "Sleeping Beauty." Those aspects of Wagner's masterpiece lend themselves to an adaptation for kids, the director said.

Wagner for the fans of tomorrow

The "Children's Ring" was sung by the same soloists who feature in minor roles in "Meistersinger" or in "Lohengrin" on Bayreuth's legendary stage next door. Sabine Hogrefe, Brünnhilde in the 2010 "Ring," played the same role in this year's production for kids. Norbert Ernst, who plays both Siegmund and Siegfried in the children's version, is a candidate for a heroic main role on the main stage in the 2013 "Ring" production.

Katharina Wagner presents her children's opera project in a classroom

Wagner heir, Katharina, presents her children's opera project in a classroom

For the opera production for kids, the Brandenburg Staatskapelle's 29 musicians play only distinctive Ring motifs, but it's enough to transpose the young listeners into the magical world of Wagner. The "Kinder-Ring" ("Children's Ring") is a production of the "Wagner for Children" project, which Katharina Wagner initiated three years ago.

"If kids are interested in music, there's a good chance they'll say: 'I'd like to see something different'," said the Bayreuth Festival co-director.

Pupils' dramas and children's opera

Making opera accessible to children has a long tradition. Musical dramas were performed with pupils in various monastery schools as early as the 17th century. Mozart composed "Apollo et Hyacinthus" for educational purposes. The development of educational theory and practices coupled with the idea that children should be recognized as unique individuals led to the creation of "opera for children" at the end of the 19th century.

Engelbert Humperdinck's "Hänsel und Gretel" further promoted the new genre, while Maurice Ravel's "The Child and the Enchantments" from 1925, Benjamin Britten's 1949 "The Little Sweep" and Hans Werner Henze's "Pollicino" from 1980 are some of its most famous successors.

Germany's first state-funded opera for children was established in Cologne in 1996 and continues to forge new ground. It offers high-quality music theater for kids and has become a popular pasttime of many Cologne families, who see it as a great alternative to a day at the movies or the zoo.

A scene from Snow White by Opera piccola in Hamburg

Hamburg's "Opera piccola" is another initiative seeking to bring opera to kids

Many other cities have followed Cologne's example. Dortmund now has its own "Little Opera House" for young listeners. Berlin's Deutsche Oper and Komische Oper, as well as Munich's Bayerische Staatsoper, stage productions for kids. And Hamburg's "Opera piccola" recently celebrated its 10th anniversary.

Most of the projects combine music productions with a broad-scoped educational plan. Hamburg, for instance, has an entire opera "studio" that trains young singers and orchestral musicians, integrating them into productions.

By kids, for kids

Children's opera - is that opera "by children" or opera "for children"?

"It's absolutely both," said Louwrens Langevoort, who initiated the "Opera piccola" series as opera manager and artistic director of the Hamburg State Opera. He now directs the Cologne Philharmonic and continues to advocate "children staging opera for children."

Louwrens Langevoort

Louwrens Langevoort sees children's opera as a good educational supplement

Nonetheless, he believes children's opera or studios cannot replace music education; they can only supplement it.

"It's simply another way of fostering a passion for classical music in children," the culture manager said, adding, "Children's opera may be particularly important for families with less of an affinity for music."

Of course, no one can say just when a love of music will be sparked in children, or if it will spark at all. But it doesn't hurt to try out new experiences and methods along the way. Perhaps it makes sense to bill the performances as "opera instead of video games."

Author: Anastassia Boutsko / als
Editor: Greg Wiser