Opera for babies is a real jewel

Ireland’s first opera for babies will be performed at the Graffiti Theatre, Blackpool, this month — Colette Sheridan, talks to the woman behind it
Opera for babies is a real jewel
Actor playing Seoid, Chloe Kiely.

GRAFFITI Theatre Company will present the first opera for babies to be staged in the republic as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival from June 15 to 17 and June 22 to 24.

Directed by Graffiti founder, Emelie Fitzgibbon, who has retired but still does occasional freelance work for the company, the opera is aimed at 0-3 year olds. It’s called Seoid (the Irish word for jewel) and stars sopranos, Linda Kenny and Chloe Kiely, as well as baritone, Damian Smith and cellist, Chris Schmidt Martin.

The opera, performed in English and Irish, “is what we call an aesthetic of quiet beauty,” says Emelie. “We’ll keep everything low key and very quiet so that it’s calm. Parents will watch it with their babies but there is no pressure on the babies. If they don’t feel like being there, there’s another space in the auditorium. They can go there and have a book read to them.”

Seoid is part of the Cruinniú na nÓg, line-up, the new young peoples festival which is taking place all over Cork on June 23.Seoid is devised by the team that staged ‘Blátha Bána’ (White Blossoms) and Gile na Gealaí (Melody of the Moon) for very young children. These shows, which included music, got very positive feedback and Blátha Bána was performed again at Graffiti.

Emelie and the Graffiti team are very interested in the whole area of theatre for small people.

Director  Emelie Fitzgibbon with Chloe Kiely.
Director  Emelie Fitzgibbon with Chloe Kiely.

“We have done quite a lot of research into reception theory for babies. We also have an early years team that’s very experienced in working with babies. They go out into creches, child care centres and direct provision centres. They are multi-disciplinary arts people.”

Italian initiatives in opera for babies are a major influence on Emelie and her team.

“We’re very influenced by Reggio Emilia. It’s an area in northern Italy where, after the war, there was a huge amount of destruction. Lots of people came together to create, in a sense, a world fit for small people. They brought in the arts.

“In most of the creches in Reggio Emilia now, there is an artist and a teacher. There’s also a wonderful company in Bologna, called La Baracca. They do great work for children and they’re very good on the theory as well.”

It’s all about exposing children to beauty and particularly to music.

“It’s an extension of the effect of music on babies in the womb. Music soothes children. Also, there’s some evidence that it helps their intellectual ability and brain processing. It opens the child to new ways of thinking.”

Emelie says that the arts, for children, is ideally part of the life experience: “You can see little lines of very small people walking to the theatre in Bologna. They walk along the streets with little ribbons tied to one another. But they own the place when they go to the theatre. There’s no sense that they have to go some place special. It’s part of their lives. We’d love that here. And it is developing. Certainly, there’s more early years theatre happening here now.”

Gile na Gealaí was developed by Emelie and colleagues in the Kennedy Centre in Washington three years ago.

Actor playing Mother, Linda Kiely, with Chloe Kiely.
Actor playing Mother, Linda Kiely, with Chloe Kiely.

“We were in the Kennedy Centre as a part of a playwriting initiative. We got to try out plays and were given a week to develop our own play.”

The composer of Seoid is Fiona Kelleher from west Cork who is best known as a traditional singer.

“Fiona composed the last two shows for children as well. This one is quite different. It’s definitely opera. It’s not just sung theatre. People are beginning to realise that young children like opera. One of our mottos is ‘small people have big emotions’. That fits with opera because it is heightened emotion.

“The music is really beautiful. We keep the sound down. The singers performing the opera could fill the Albert Hall, but they tune it down so that it’s just right.”

Seodín is sung by Chloe Kiely, a graduate of CIT Cork School of Music. “She has the voice of an angel,” says Emelie.

The opera is about Seodín, a young woman who is in her childhood room. She is going through a box full of memories. Gradually, her parents appear and guide her through the seasons. But then the parents gradually disappear.

“She is on her own so there are deep emotions. It’s fine for a child to watch but I think it’s going to be difficult for the adults. I won’t give away too much but I think adults in the audience will be teary.

“It’s a thing of beauty. There’s also fun in it and some stage magic as well as beautiful transformations of the seasons.”

The set is designed by Deirdre Dwyer. The narrative is by Emelie and Síle Ní Bhroin with input from the team.

As well as Emelie’s contribution to the Cork Midsummer Festival, her husband, Ger Fitzgibbon, and son, Ronan, have penned new plays too. Ger, retired from UCC where he initiated the Drama and Theatre Studies course, has written and is directing a new play called Tenebrae with Theatre Makers at the Unitarian Church from June 18 to 24.

Ronan Fitzgibbon is staging the premiere of his latest play, Blackwater Babble at Callanan’s pub from June 19 to 24, by Brokencrow Theatre Company. It’s the story of 40 summers spent traversing the Blackwater River.

For more see www.corkmidsummer.com.

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