A Wee Mite at the Opera

If there's one thing Scottish Opera have established over the past three years, it's that babies are bowled over by opera. This year they are hoping to repeat the feat, so we send along the toughest—and tiniest—of critics

feature (edinburgh) | Read in About 4 minutes
32586 large
Fox-tot! by Rachael Hood
Photo by Rachael Hood
Published 07 Aug 2019

After BabyO and BambinO comes Fox-tot!, the newest production from Scottish Opera providing multi-sensory entertainment for a toddler audience aged 1-2 years. 

Fest is lucky enough to send one plucky young reporter, Oran, who recently passed the minimum age threshold. He is dispatched — along with his primary carer — to participate in rehearsals at the company’s Glasgow base in an old Victorian building near Charing Cross. 

Child development is at the heart of Scottish Opera's new work, inviting babies from local nurseries to rehearsals to see how they respond. Fox-tot! has evolved according to these responses. While we are there an attempt to calm a restless Oran leads to the Fox tickling the children’s feet with his tail. As director Roxana Haines says, "We’ll continue learning as every toddler and parent who comes in can help shape the performance."

This isn't composer Lliam Paterson's first baby rodeo. He credits an initial research and development week with giving life to the work. "That process is really important because it’s taking it off the page and actually having the babies there so you can try stuff out and see what they respond to."

Haines continues as Oran chimes into the conversation: "All of those things you can hear, when the children hear them…[Oran steals the dictaphone and starts ‘singing’ into it]...Their eyes go to the cello, their eyes go to the percussion. Every time the shaker is used every eye in the room is on it...[shouting]. They have a higher acknowledgement of frequency than we do...[loud bashing, an accomplished exhale].

"A lot of that initial research has come from what the sensor motory phases of this specific age group are…[panting, a strange thrum as if the dictaphone is being dragged along a rubber sheet]...so it’s about creating a world where they can explore their bodies…[low level bashing]...They can stretch their arms, they can bang the floor as Fox bangs the floor, they can respond to themselves."

The baby audience are invited to roam free on the tree trunk cushion-strewn floor; fabric leaves are dropped from above; a cool breeze is caused by a passing fox-butterfly puppet; a large fabric moon is rolled across the ground, while a fabric sun has heat pads stitched in to provide further dimensions of sensory experience. The children’s mobility has informed the physical space—the cellist is elevated to escape curious hands, the percussionist is behind a protective set designed by Giuseppe and Emma Belli—and also the composition. Says Paterson, "The really interesting thing about writing this piece for this age group, toddler to 24 months, is of course you have really active kids who are going to be crawling and trying to walk and grab things.

"There’s a lot of music just for the percussion and the cello. So compared to the previous opera there’s actually less singing as a whole – that was to allow the two performers to be much more physically free to actually deal with the situation of having an onslaught of toddlers grabbing things or...[muffled bashing noise, followed by a crash, almost as if a toddler has grabbed the phone and dropped it on the ground...]" 

What is clear from the rehearsals is that Fox-tot! offers an experience which is thoughtful, immersive and, crucially, not patronising. Haines confirms: "It’s a real opera, it’s just tiny. And that’s what is beautiful about it. The costumes and the sets and the performances are still real – you can hear them, they’re not shying away from singing. There are lots of things that we can’t plan that will be joyful. We can’t plan the things that will resonate the most because it’s just about...[She is interrupted by shouting]...offering lots of different things..."

[Bashing. The sound of a microphone being repeatedly beaten]."

"Oh no!" [The sound of a baby falling over]

"He’s fine! You’re OK!"

He is fine. He has a lovely time and is looking forward to seeing Fox-tot! in full once they’ve taken on board all of his notes.