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Interview of Willem Bruls

creating opera for young audiences


In the framework of the Miniatures : creating opera & music theatre for young audiences workshops cycle organised by LOD muziektheater & La Monnaie / De Munt.

Friday 8th September, 3PM - Inside the big studio of LOD in Ghent, the 17 participants of the Miniatures Workshop are ready to present the concepts they have developed by themself or in teams during the two sessions of a workshop cycle aimed at creating opera and music theatre for children and youth. In front of an audience of artists, arts professionals and enoa partners, the workshop tutor Willem Bruls (dramaturge & author) concludes his introduction confessing that « we were looking for the child and maybe we found the child in ourselves ». For nearly 3 hours the projects follow but do not resemble one another, their only thing in common is, without any doubt, the commitment and passion for this topic that all these young talented artists have. Last July, we had the opportunity to interview Willem Bruls on this fascinating subject: opera and music theatre for young audience and why this issue must be tackled. 


How did the idea of this workshop come up?


The idea didn’t come from me in the first place since I am not an expert in opera and music theatre for children and youth. I was asked to mentor this workshop because I am experienced in working with teams in workshops. I think it is important to tackle this topic because there are so many reasons that opera is only for adults and older people. Opera houses have the feeling that they must work on a younger audience. The only thing they can do is trying from the very beginning; there are different possibilities to do that: it can be with young people performing on stage or you can compose and write something for them.


What was the aim of it?


We decided at an early stage to split this workshop in two: a first week in Brussels to think freely without any obligation and a second week more practical, in Ghent, developing a concept.

I was very interested in the idea of developing a manifesto with the workshop’s group on why it is important to do music theatre and opera for youth, for the future generations. I started by asking them what they thought was important, what they would like to research during the first session and we made a list. At the end of the session we went back to this list and looked what had been important, what we had neglected and what we should pay more attention to.


What is the responsibility of the institutions and the artists regarding the creation of music theatre and opera for children and young audience?


It is important to realize that there should be music theatre and opera for children to give them access to this wonderful world and that opera houses have the obligation to do something in that direction. Most of the responsibility should be at the institutions, they must create an audience, open-up their houses to audiences who would not come in otherwise. They can do that on different levels like commissioning a composer and a librettist to write something for someone of a certain age. Artists only have the obligation to do it if they want to do it. It has to be an intrinsic need of the artist to make opera for children.


What is the responsibility of the artists regarding the stories they choose to tell and the ideas they transmit through their art?


Children more and more grow up with screens. There is nothing wrong with that, the only risk is that it might kill the imagination and that is of course a troubling idea!

One of the obligations of the makers is to create opera and music theatre that opens-up the imagination of children. Music is a very important element you can use for that because it immediately touches you in the deepest emotions. Artists must create a language where children can widen their perspective in a rational and emotional way. How to do that depends on the age or what audience you are aiming at.


How do we keep artistic demands very high even if the audience is children?


It is very difficult to define what you can do and what you cannot do as it depends on the psychology of the child. You will not create the same thing if you are addressing an 8 year old or a 13 year old child. There are probably some rules but one of the simple things to remember is that until 12, children digest everything and are curious. They are interested in stories, music, and playing along. It starts to be more complicated after 12. The musical language of the opera should be the artistic choice of the composer. If you take L’Enfant et les sortilèges by Maurice Ravel for example, children find it fascinating but it is a very complex score and a complex music. Philippe Boesmans’ Pinocchio was apparently aimed at children 8 years onwards; the wonderful thing is that he did not make any compromise about the musical language, about the subject and the story. His opera is on a high level and it’s not easy.


Do you think new topics need to be addressed by the creators in their new pieces?


New stories need to be addressed; it’s even one of the main goals. When a child grows up, for example gender is quickly defined in an artificial way. It’s important in projects for young children to battle the clichés of gender through music theatre with witty subjects. The mere fact that they have to listen to singing or to sing themselves is already gender defined. You have to keep that open as long as possible, and you can do that with opera for children.  It is scientifically proven that the brain is richer when a child grows up with music, listening and making music develop his imagination.


Do you feel you had to deconstruct some preconceptions among the workshop’s participants?


They are young, they are at the beginning of their career but at the same time they’ve grown up in a modern society so they know they cannot have a career in the old fashioned way. 

A very important notion I brought in the beginning of the workshop is that every cliché has its historical reason. Clichés about gender, sexism, social division between high and low class are clichés but they make us aware of the fact that they exist. They are ambiguous because they have a negative side and a positive side.


What is the opera for children that has stricken you most and why?


We didn’t go to opera in our family so I don’t have strong memories in this sense, the first time in my life I saw theater was puppetry. During the workshop I showed some extracts from the Cunning Little Vixen by a Belgian fashion and stage designer Christophe Coppens to show them that you don’t have to make compromises, you can tackle very vulnerable and touchy topics – in this case abuse and violence – in a very poetical way. I think it was a wonderful way to have the highest artistic standards with a beautiful opera, creating something that is at the same time on the skin of our times about children that resonate into the audience. This production made a strong impression on me.


Interviewed by Elise Ortega on July 3rd, 2017