I was lucky enough to be able to speak with Zoë Challenor from B’Opera, a Birmingham based company who brings opera productions and singing classes to babies and young children!
B’Opera was founded by professional singers Zoë Challenor, Jacqueline Wright and pianist Phil Ypres-Smith and their aim is to bring beautiful music to tiny ears – so much so that that is the strap line of their company. Here at Get Kids Into Music, I have attended some of their relaxed concerts both in person and online during the pandemic. We loved the mix of opera and traditional children’s songs, the multi-sensory nature of the show, and that the performers and audience were close together rather than performers up on stage away from the audience (this was before the pandemic of course). I would highly recommend going to B’Opera performance, and have no doubt that when they are able to run classes again, they bring the same inclusive approach to their classes.
So I was delighted to speak to Zoë the other day to find out more about what is coming up for B’Opera in the next few months. When I spoke to Zoë, B’Opera’s First Songs classes had not restarted at the Hippodrome yet, and they were in a period when they were creating and workshopping events that would be coming up in the near future.
Get Kids: I see from your social media posts that you’re doing lots of projects at the moment like Sing In New Year, Springfield Community Project, Moseley Baths. You have a lot on at the moment.
Zoë Challenor: There is a lot on. We have our heads down creating things at the moment, so all of our events are in the pipeline at the moment. so you know I was doing the First Songs sessions at the Hippodrome. We haven’t been back there since the pandemic, but we are looking forward to going back in September. We have got a Relaxed Concert coming up on 19 March, booking for that is now open. The concert is called Songs my Mother Taught Me, and will be a blend of music by composers like Dvořák, Schumann, Brahms and Mervyn Burtch, with a few, original B’Opera compositions, and arrangements of much-loved children’s songs.
I am a singer in a new opera project at Moseley Road Baths created by -underscore, and B’Opera families have taken part in some workshops helping to explore the acoustics of the space, and creating a sound world and language for the opera. The actual project at Moseley Road Baths is quite adult. I mean even the name of the event is very adult – Drowning the Innocence. I was telling my daughter about it, and she was horrified as she misheard title thinking it was Drowning the Innocents! I hope to have some events for B’Opera families connected to this project coming soon. I’m really interested in this because normally we just do our own thing, like at the Hippodrome we go in as a guest and do our own thing. This is different as we are joining someone else’s project and seeing what that looks like.
And then the we have the new baby opera. We don’t have any concrete dates for performances just yet. It’s part of the Springfield Community Project. The plan is for this to be opened up to people, first to the families who took part in the workshops for the Springfield Community Project, who were part of creating it. And then we will work out what to do with all of it. In past we’ve got to this stage with a new opera and then opened it up to the wider world. Now we need to apply for further funding to expand and develop the project and bring it to the wider world. There’s more to be done before we’re ready to show it as a finished baby opera. We do have our opera Alice and the Library Tree coming back this summer for performances in Droitwich on 4th June. This is an opera aimed at 0-8 year olds.
GK: Working with the Springfield Community, my assumption with the Springfield Community is that it is not a community of traditional opera goers.
ZC: No they’re not, you’re right. So it’s a mostly Pakistani community in Springfield, not entirely though, and yes, they aren’t traditional opera audiences. And what is fascinating is we have a designer for the opera, Ruhksana Sardar, who is from Sparkhill, she is from that community. She has gone all the way around the world working in fashion and come back to Birmingham and the way she talks about the work is really interesting. She is really interested in opera, she doesn’t know much about opera, but she is very interested in it. She talks about growing up there and not having access to opera. It just wasn’t on the radar for her. She is now so passionate about music and opera being taken into this community and about how you just don’t know how that child watching/engaging with it will react, or what they will do with it in the future. And it’s the same with the families coming along to our workshops, they are not traditional opera goers, but they are so interested and engaged and want to know more. They are really wanting to come to the workshops and are excited to come to the show. That’s been absolutely beautiful.
The working title for the project was More In Common, and the theme for the workshops was what makes us the same and what makes us different. And so we obviously went away and thought about it, and were saying hmmn this sounds good but it’s not really the title of a show for 0-5 year olds. The audience are going to hear that title and it won’t mean much to them. So we’ve taken all these themes that came out of the workshop and we have a story about a bird and a fish, called Hello Bird, Hello Fish. Lost Bird is very lonely and wants to fit in, wants to find some people that she belongs with and she gets rejected by the fireflies and the bees. Eventually she finds some fish who are doing yoga and trying to be really calm, and quiet and zen and there’s a Noisy Fish who doesn’t quite fit in with the fish either. She is terrible at yoga as well. She keeps fidgetting and wriggling and falling over. And of course there is an allegory about toddlers and grown ups here obviously. When you go into nurseries and talk about this and about the fish who want to be quiet and breathe deeply, all the nursery staff are smiling at you and going yeah, yeah, and then you talk about the noisy fish who can’t keep still and keeps wriggling, and saying it’s not my fault my body just wants to move, and all the children are like yeah, and you see the smiles of recognition! So Noisy Fish and Lost Bird make friends and connect with one another. There’s loads of layers to it, as is the case with all we do, but that’s the essence of the show: finding connection in people who don’t necessarily look like you, or inhabit the same world view as you.
GK: So what made you start B’Opera, what drew you to put on opera shows and First Songs sessions for babies and young children?
ZC: So it was nearly 5 years ago now. Opera and music has always been very important to me. I’ve grown up around it, I am steeped in it. And I knew in that instinctive way that music was powerful, unifying, so multi-layered. Like where do you start? Music in itself is valuable because it is art, and art helps to reflect our experience back to us in a way that can be very therapeutic, helpful, educational. But also it brings us together. It plays an active part in the bonding process between infant and caregiver, I am now learning through the studies I am doing. It changes the way babies brains develop. We like to shorthand that by saying it makes babies cleverer, and it probably does, but it is so much more than that. But also I think it is important that we don’t get drawn into having to justify music for other reasons, like it makes them better at other things, because although that may be true, music is important in itself. As you know, Birmingham’s a very diverse city and I love that. And one of the things I wanted to be able to do with B’Opera was bring little ones and their families from all different backgrounds together around a positive shared experience of music. So it’s not that one thing is more important than the other, but I feel that music is a vehicle for this kind of cohesion and community building.
And there were a lot of experiences I had that led up to B’Opera, but there were two catalysts that really, really prompted it. One was I went to a lunchtime concert not long before I started B’Opera, at one of the large cultural institutions in the city, and there was a mum there with, I think 3 children with her, and one was a baby in a sling. They were really quiet, but at one point the baby murmured and the mum just slipped out of the concert, but this man next to me tutted and made a really big deal about it. And it really got me thinking. I spoke to the man at the end of the concert and said don’t you think little children need live music as much as we do, and he kind of ignored me. So I went to speak to the management of the venue and said this has happened, do you have things on that are friendly for families? And they didn’t at that time. I offered to create some but they didn’t take me up on it, that was just not on their radar. So I went away and I mulled on it and stewed on it with Jac and Phil, what would this sort of thing look like, and then we came up with B’Opera and thought this is what we’re going to do. That really helped to clarify what was needed and why it was needed.
Another experience I had was with my own baby, my second child, in a sling, and I went to see Birmingham Opera Company do Dido and Aeneas and towards the end she was murmuring and starting to make a noise. I went over towards the exit ready to leave if I needed to and the director Graham Vick, who died recently, made a beeline for us and said: Don’t worry. Stay. I’m glad you’re here. He made me feel really welcome. Birmingham Opera Company have this incredible model that I don’t see anywhere else really in the opera world, of this incredible inclusivity. Just bringing people in, off the streets, from refugee groups. A diverse cast that reflects the city. They do things in a different way that proves that this idea of opera being elitist is complete and utter rubbish. So that was another experience, where Graham Vick made me and the baby feel so welcome, and I was struck by the fact that that could be done. I didn’t really process that until later after he had died.
So why did I start B’Opera? Well I feel quite strongly that you have a lot of opera companies that do opera in a certain way, it looks a certain way, it is very traditional maybe. And the audiences are generally white, middle class and over 70. They do an opera in the main house, and that is where the proper opera is, the proper singers, the stars. Then they come and create a little education and outreach department, and tack it onto the side, and the job of that department is to undo all of the exclusion that the main opera production thing has created in the first place. If you could include people right from the start, from the womb, or when they come out the womb, or when they are very little and draw their families in as well, wouldn’t that be better? The families who come to B’Opera often say I’ve never been to an opera, but I love this, I’m going to go now because I really like that. If you can do that, sweep them up in it from the start, then you’re not creating the exclusion that you have too spend thousands of pounds trying to counteract.
So when I have been taking my children along to see stuff, it’s always a calculated risk. The benefits of it can be great and it’s a wonderful thing to do, and we do it partly because we know there are benefits. But sometimes at the time it’s just horrible, and messy and hard. I don’t know if you have that or it’s just my kids?
GK: Oh no, absolutely, it can be hard and it’s impossible to get them to sit still. Especially my youngest.
ZC: Oh yes, my youngest as well. We’ve had some wonderful experiences. They have watched me conduct when I was working at Trinity, and all sorts of things. I’ve taken them to the opera. I took my eldest to Welsh National Opera, something really adult like War and Peace and all the people saying “Oh, it’s so lovely that you’re here” and it’s really welcoming and affirming. But because of the pandemic we haven’t had a chance to take them to see anything for a long time.
GK: That’s actually another thing I wanted to ask you about, about the effect of the pandemic. You know, many people had a lot of time on their hand, but so little opportunity to go to any live concerts and live events, and I wondered if you have noticed any change in people’s engagement. Has that changed in any way, either because they haven’t had access to it, or because they have had a lot more time to think about music and want to be part of something a bit more creative?
Z: That’s a really interesting question, but in a nutshell it’s really hard to answer and that’s for a few reasons. I had a crushing experience in the pandemic in that I became very ill and then got LongCovid. So I feel that for a long time all of my energy went into just staying alive, it was massive. In terms of coming out of it and starting to interact with families again, I would say that the interactive, multi-sensory nature of B’Opera has been really important since the start because that’s how babies and children learn. I think actually, it’s how a lot of us learn, but we write it out of ourselves. We have an education system that undermines that, and seeks to just concentrate on the skills involved, and just listening and a very monochrome method of delivery. Obviously that multi-sensory way of doing things became very difficult with the pandemic because we were online, and that’s not multi-sensory really at all.
Regarding online, I found it worked really well for the little ones who already had experience of us, who we had a relationship with, and their grown ups as well. I think having something to continue that relationship, was really helpful for them, some kind of continuity. The child recognising “Oh that’s Zoë and we’re doing the song with the rainbow teddy” or something, that was really positive. Also, one advantage for people was in being able to replay stuff, and they liked that. So those were some advantages. But it wasn’t particularly successful for engaging new families, building new relationships I didn’t find. Maybe that was partly because I was so ill, I had limited energy for it, I don’t know.
GK: From our experience with our children and online experiences, we were obviously going to quite a few events before the pandemic the children, both of them, would concentrate for quite a long time. But at home with attending events online there were just so many other distractions available to them, or they could just run off and get a toy. There is something about being there in the moment, that captures your attention.
Z: You’re so right, it’s the richness of the environment, isn’t it? For one thing, you are there, physically present, there is nowhere else to be. You can smell, you can touch, you can feel, and you hear in a different way because the sound isn’t canned. And yeah, it’s all there in a much more immediate way. I noticed that with my little one, it’s just very hard to engage her in anything online at all.
As we came out of the pandemic in the very early days, I went to Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens and we did some sessions there, out in the orchard and that’s coming back this year actually in late March. I’m so happy about that because that was a beautiful, beautiful experience. And in the very early days everyone was still very nervous because of the pandemic, as you can imagine. I guess we’re talking Summer 2020 when things opened back up again briefly. Then we went back again in 2021. But in 2020 everyone was very nervous, and we were thinking, will the children come up and touch everything? You know at the Hippodrome there had always been this total lack of boundaries, they would come up and climb on you, and take things out your hands. Others would just sit and watch, it so depends on the child how they react, and so we wondered about that. Actually I was struck by how much the children didn’t move and didn’t explore. I guess that ties in with an experience I had at the Hippodrome on Remembrance Day one year. I arrived to do the session, and the management turned up to say we will be observing the 2 minutes silence today. I looked at Ellie, who used to be my Assistant there and we were like, do we say anything? Do you realise we are working with babies and toddlers doing music? 2 minutes silence? Are you having a laugh? But actually when it rolled around and we said to them we’re going to be quiet for a minute and think about the people who have done something very kind for us and say thank you, and we’re going to have some bubbles. And when we did that, there was hardly a sound in the room. There must have been 70 bodies, if you counted children and babies and grown ups, and we were in an open Theatre Foyer and literally you could have heard a pin drop. I think because there was an intention in the room set up by the adults, and little ones picked up on that. So I guess there’s something similar going on with the pandemic, just the whole, you know, no you can’t go and explore, and you can’t run over there and just touch stuff and then lick your fingers and do this and that. And whereas I thought that was just an inherent part of being a child, that was actually really kind of sad, for me, to see. Inevitable really, but quite sad because I feel quite strongly that that whole letting them explore thing is part of their learning and their brain building.
GK: So with babies and opera, in terms of adults and their expectations, do you think a lot of adults perhaps don’t give children the credit they deserve for being able to listen to things that are a bit more complex? Do people ask you if the babies are too young for opera?
ZC: Totally, I mean we have a bit of an in-joke in the music world that the children are, well you can play them anything. They’re not the problem.It’s the adults that have got the pre-conceptions! So no I don’t actually get asked that question, I do get asked So opera for babies, what does that look like? Do the babies sing opera? OK, no, no, no…
Increasingly, we are including voices from audiences in what we’re doing. So I used to laugh and say no the babies don’t sing, we sing opera and other stuff and they listen and it’s all built into a sort of interactive musical journey. But increasingly their voices are becoming part of what we do, which I love. The whole Moseley Road Baths Splash and Scream thing was literally their voices were being recorded and measured in the space by these sonographers and it is being built into a new language for this new opera. And in lockdown we made a short film called Stolen Moments where we got families to send in their children’s voices to be part of it. Then I’ve got a grant from the Arts Council at the moment. There’s a strand called Developing Your Creative Practice and it’s to help me look for ways to do more of this sort of thing.As part of this I’m going to be running a group called Mother Voice which is going to be for parents with new babies. It’s going to be a way of coming together, probably online, and sharing experiences using music as a medium for bonding with babies. So for example, writing a lullaby for your baby. And technology, so I’m going to be buying something to actually record children’s voices and maybe sample them back in the performances we are doing, sort of interwoven with the music, so I’m developing lots of different ideas about actually getting the children’s voices involved in what we make.
But yes, grown ups have lots of pre-conceptions about music, because we’ve learned them, haven’t we? Children themselves just have no filters, they just listen. And if you’re singing a beautiful, sustained sort of full of emotion piece of opera in, I don’t know, Italian, they can be mesmerised for quite long periods of time. This is the thing that strikes adults who come along to B’Opera events I think. They see the children listening, they see the impact the music has on the children and they are really surprised because, yes we impose limits on children, don’t we? We don’t think they can sustain their attention for that long. Perhaps a very young baby, we don’t think they can maintain eye contact and look interested for that long. But I think it’s the adults projecting a lot of the time. Is that your experience?
GK: Yeah, I think so. When my eldest was tiny I was given loads of recommendations of this nursery rhyme, that nursery rhyme, children’s TV to listen to or watch and I was there thinking, well he’s 6 months old, he’s not going to care if I put something else on. So I’d stick radio 3 on thinking this is just as much for me to listen to as for him. It doesn’t all have to be nursery rhymes. But I also don’t like, certainly one place I worked they tried to encourage us to say classical music is best, and I couldn’t stand that. Music is music, and it’s all good for different reasons.
ZC: I agree. Also, how alienating is that? That’s massively culturally loaded, isn’t it? When I go into the Springfield Project one of the important things, I feel, is finding out what their musical language is and finding out what they listen to. I had a lovely experience of doing that in a session in Handsworth. I asked this mum what she listened to at home and she said Bollywood and Hollywood, and I had this feeling that Hollywood was added in to make her sound more, like, culturally integrated. Anyway, I came back and I played some Bollywood and her response was just so beautiful. And this is a woman with a lot of trauma in her life, she’d had a lot of problems with her baby. But she recognised the song and she just lit up and started singing along, translating to me what it was about. It was a love story between a boy and a girl, and she was telling me the story of it. That sort of engagement is priceless really, and keying in to what people already love and what is already meaningful to them rather than imposing your idea on them is so important. Telling people: Go and listen to Tosca! It’s totally meaningless. What’s the point of that, it carries no meaning for her? It’s not going to be a helpful experience for anyone.
GK: One last thing I wanted to ask is for your recommendations. If someone were to ask you where to start with opera, what would you suggest?
ZC: There’s a wonderful animated film of The Cunning Little Vixen by Janáček. It’s full of folk music, full of folk tunes and catchy melodies. That’s really wonderful. L’enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel is quite interesting. It’s quite a short opera, about 45 minutes and it’s got this really rich sound world of animals and insects and all sorts of things. And it’s about this little child, l’enfant, who goes around wreaking a lot of havoc, and creating lots of damage, tearing the wallpaper, and breaking a cup and things like that. Then they all come to life and teach the child a bit of a lesson. So it’s really relatable for parents and children alike, because there’s this unruly out of control child, and then the way nature takes the child in hand and teaches it about respecting the world around it. But in a lovely, quite nurturing way. So it depends on what age child we are talking about for recommendations. Obviously I would say that for little ones B’Opera is the perfect entry point! At B’Opera we try to bring a lot of things together rather than do someone else’s full opera. We might do a show with some new music that we have composed and some reworked folk songs, or nursery rhymes and some bits of opera, so it’s a good mix.
I would say there’s no rule as to what you have to start with. I think some people have an idea that music for children has to be very upbeat, whereas they actually really love the emotionally laden stuff. So I would stick on some Puccini arias, like Mimi from La Boheme, La Traviata, some music from Verdi even. I wouldn’t shy away from some of the meaty, more adult stuff. And I would say that if you as a grown up start to like something, do what you did and put on radio 3, so if you enjoy or love something and it’s meaningful to you I think your child picks up on that. I think they sense our connection to a piece of music. I love Billy Joel Lullabye (Goodnight my Angel). I just can’t hear it or sing it without crying and my children love it because they sense I love it.
But Puccini is very beautiful music and I don’t know many people who don’t love Puccini or like it in some way. There’s a series on Spotify called “I didn’t think I liked classical music but I love this” or something like that and they’ve got William Tell Overture, all the really famous pieces of music, Barcarolle, Carmen by Bizet, and one way to go might be to go and look at a complilation like that. Make sure it’s done well, and that one is, it’s got proper Symphony Orchestras playing. And from there you’ll get to Well I liked that, and I didn’t like that so much, so you can go and explore a little bit more. Because it’s really hard to say what anyone is going to enjoy. Like Phil, our Musical Director, grew up without any music in his life. He listened to radio 3 and really modern, we call it squeaky gate, music as a teenager and just became fascinated and loved that. So it wasn’t at all the lovely melodic Puccini, it was this really angular, cerebral, modern, atonal music that he took to. So you just can’t know what you or your child will like before you try it. Maybe it’s good to play as wide a variety as you can. We make a lot of use of Saint Saens and Carnival of the Animals, and you can’t really go wrong with that, with any age group, and bringing movement into your listening. How does the Kangaroo move across the room for example. That’s a great activity for parents with children, isn’t it?
During our interview Zoe spoke to me about the new opera they are developing along with the Springfield Community Project. I was invited to go along to see the work in progress at a performance and feedback session for the people who had been participating in the project. Come back next week to read my review of this production which, brilliantly involves kazoo playing bees!
In the meantime, you can find out more about B’Opera and their classes and events by visiting their website or social media:
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