PROJECT IN FOCUS. Reinventing the National Opera for Kids

photo: Martynas Aleksa

Over the two decades of regained independence, no operas for kids have been premiered on the main Lithuanian opera stage. The approaching premiere of Jonas Tamulionis’ children opera Bruknelė (The Tiny Lingonberry) scheduled at the Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre (LNOBT) in March 2010, provides a good opportunity to look back and review the history of Lithuanian musical theatre for children until the present day and what role did the national creators play in it.

Catchy Melodies and a Good Story Make for a Successful Opera

In March 1989, the opera Mažylis (Little Brother) was staged at LNOBT. Since then, several generations of audiences have grown up in Lithuania, however, their early encounters with professional theatre were mainly related to childhood visits to puppet or drama plays rather than the opera. The opera theatre was open for kids as well, yet the major part of its children repertoire traditionally consisted of ballets, such as Igor Morozov’s Doctor Ouchaches, Bogdan Pawlowski’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Cipollino by Karen Khachaturyan. Their uncomplicated and chrestomatic plots and the universal language of dance ensured the interest of the youngest audiences (by the way, these well-attended ballets are still on repertoire of the theatre), yet these plays had nothing to do with national creation.

The children opera Marių paukštė (The Seabird) by Jurgis Juozapaitis (libretto by Sigitas Geda) was staged in 1979 and might be regarded as a first attempt to present the Lithuanian folk tales in a form of opera at the musical theatre stage. The said Vygandas Telksnys’ opera Mažylis (libretto by Gediminas Astrauskas) was based on the motifs of Astrid Lindgren’s Karlsson on the Roof stories. The author of the opera did not make a secret that he thought a good plot made ‘half the battle’: at that time any kid knew Karlsson, not so much as a character from Lindgren’s books but rather as the world’s most charming portly man with a propeller on his back from animated films by Russian animator Boris Stepantsev. Today the cover of the original opera brochure could well arouse the interest of political historians: it depicts Karlsson holding a Swedish flag in one hand and a Lithuanian tricolour flag in another (in 1989, few had the courage to raise this flag even at meetings of Lithuanian independence movement Sąjūdis).

Nevertheless, the two operas by Lithuanian composers were far behind the longevity of the very first Lithuanian opera for children – the legendary Burattino by Jurgis Gaižauskas (1922–2009), based on the libretto by Anzelmas Matutis. Originally staged in 1969, on the basis of Aleksey Tolstoy’s tale The Golden Key or the Adventures of Burattino (based on the motifs of Carlo Collodi’s children novel The Adventures of Pinocchio) this opera was popular throughout the entire Soviet Union and was revived in 1985. It remained in repertoire of LNOBT for forty years, until 2009. Speaking on the incredible popularity of his opera, composer Jurgis Gaižauskas had specified the key prerequisites needed to create a good stage work for children: “This opera is so popular due to the fact that it contains pronounced melodies. Not to mention the great and sounding libretto by Anzelmas Matutis and a good plot itself. Small kids want to see action and to be interested.” Vivid melodies, sounding libretto and the intrigue of the plot are universal objectives pursued by opera creators of all times.

Last year, prior to being removed from the repertoire, the opera CD was recorded and released. In autumn of 2009, after the death of the author, the Burattino was revived by the Klaipėda Musical Theatre, which presented the opera score to young producers and novice artists of the theatre.

Educational Outreach to Children is a Must

No matter how gratifying the long-term success of Burattino is, one cannot escape the feeling that this opera was used for long years to fill in the gaps of LNOBT’s children repertoire, which have emerged as the theatre went through major ideological, structural and economic changes. The experience of musical theatres of the Independence period clearly showed that staging an opera for children (and, even more importantly, retaining it on the repertoire later) needs more than the sole efforts of creators and producers. Not only a clear vision regarding the repertoire and various young audience education programmes are needed, but also the support from the state and private organisations. Understanding that, adequate attention should be paid to the formation of environment outside the theatre that would direct the attention of the society towards the needs of the children culture. The abundance of events and their artistic variety – festivals, competitions, occasional and continuous projects – made it possible to compare the adult and children sections of the repertoire, to see and feel the lack of original works, to try and arrange smaller, chamber-like low cost productions providing new opportunities to creators.

In 1995 and 1997 LNOBT organised festivals-competitions called ‘Theatre for Children’ that attracted the attention of many culture, politics and business people towards the poor artistic level of children plays at country’s theatres and an often hit-or-miss repertoire. At the same time, the rebirth of the Lithuanian opera for children was strongly encouraged by the Music Education Centre – School Gama, among the teachers of which were many creative music professionals. Since 1993, this centre has produced the following publicly shown performances where the kids took part in: short operas by Rasa Zurbaitė-Dikčienė Night-time and Rainbow and two different versions of children opera The Trial of the Little Lamb by Algirdas Martinaitis. The latter opera together with The Dancing Cow by Regina Poškutė-Grün were presented at the St. Christopher Summer Music festival. Musician, Devil and Thundergod by Rasa Zurbaitė-Dikčienė was performed by children from artistic studio Diemedis at the contemporary music festival Gaida in 1996; another musical play While Daddy Snores by Zurbaitė-Dikčienė, presented by children from the same artistic studio, was a vivid accent at the same festival in 2000. In 1998 LNOBT showed Laimis Vilkončius’ opera The Bird – a joint project of United Nations Development Programme and Music Education Centre – School Gama. In 2004, Bronius Kutavičius’ opera Old Man Bones on the Iron Mountain (created in 1976) was premiered anew at the National Philharmonic Society and was released on CD. After the spreading of small-scale operas (mostly following the motifs of Lithuanian folk tales and based on the contemporary music language) at the country’s concert halls, the longing for large scale national stage work has become even more apparent, simultaneously perceiving the responsibility for its artistic expression and better understanding the expectations of the young viewers.

Back to Lithuanian Fairy Tales

There are only two children operas by Lithuanian composers among the performances currently running at Lithuanian musical theatres: Mushroom War and Peace by Zita Bružaitė at Kaunas State Music Theatre and The Potato Tale by Antanas Kučinskas at Klaipėda State Music Theatre. Only two children plays by foreign authors have been produced at LNOBT over the last decade: the educational Let’s Make an Opera by Benjamin Britten (2000) and Rachel Portman’s The Little Prince (2007). Together with theatre soloists pupils of music and art schools have actively participated in both plays. Along its line of earlier ballet productions, the theatre is showing Peter Penn (2005) by Laimis Vilkončius, danced by pupils of Vilnius ballet school.

Taking into consideration the still sensible lack of children operas and relying on experience gained from previous successful joint projects, LNOBT, in collaboration with Lithuanian Composers’ Union and the Ministry of Culture, has initiated a competition to create a new children opera in 2008. According to Laima Vilimienė, Deputy General Manager, LNOBT, “running a competition for the opera was encouraged by the permanent lack of such operas in repertoire and the fact that the oldest and most popular Lithuanian opera for children Burattino was removed from the repertoire. Out of 13 creators who took part in the competition the commission has selected the outlines by four famous and experienced composers: Zita Bružaitė, Raminta Šerkšnytė, Vidmantas Bartulis and Jonas Tamulionis. Without much question the commission selected the opera of the latter composer, written on the basis of Martynas Vainilaitis’ tale in verse The Tiny Lingonberry. Another reason why the libretto seemed acceptable was related to this literary work being is included in secondary school programmes. Presently we are conducting the preliminary education programme: we have arranged the children drawing competition, group of soloists is visiting Lithuanian schools presenting the new Lithuanian opera – The Tiny Lingonberry by Jonas Tamulionis.”

stage design: Birutė Ukrinaitė

The composer who won the competition admits to have faced a dilemma while writing a stage work for children: on the one hand, the target audience is children, on the other hand – most children come to the theatre together with their parents. Jonas Tamulionis: “I cannot write something overly elaborate or modern (in a bad sense of the word); I also find it unacceptable to strive for popularity using cheap crummy means, because even the youngest kids are not silly: when they come to the theatre they do realize that the opera genre differs from a simple song.” Speaking of the music for the opera, the acclaimed and highly productive composer (his list of works contains more than 260 opuses, with pieces for guitar, accordion and choir taking up the special position) regretted that due to the plot of the opera he could not use the guitar sounds, Spanish motives or electronic music effects he liked. “In this case I give the priority to the classic symphony orchestra. The vocal parts should be simpler and more songful, yet many episodes in the orchestra’s play bear certain contemporary sounding – this way I strive to achieve the sound and dynamic balance. The libretto provides for numerous crowd scenes, since a two-act opera with only a few characters would be monotonous and boring. Thus, the opera will have quite a bit of choruses, which, together with choreography, should help to retain the tension. While writing for the chorus I rely on my experience and it helps me a great deal, since  chorus is the most fantastic instrument created by mankind.”

Jonas Tamulionis has received over 40 awards at various international choral music competitions and the recent years were no exception: “two of my highly complex pieces in Lithuanian language (!) have been performed by the unique choir from Philippines  University of Santo Tomas Singers (under Fidel G. Calalang, Jr.), during its three-and-a-half month tour in 5 European countries in 2008. And in 2009, at the California International Choir Festival and Competition this collective was awarded two first prizes and an audience prize. I am glad that the choral music is needed not only in Lithuania and that Lithuanian music is being performed in the world.”

Numerations by Jonas Tamulionis (b. 1949) sounded like a continuous recitative of weird, strange words in varying registers and volumes, the choir’s vivid, vigorous, exuberant delivery producing a riveting, magnetic incantation.

The Philippine Star, 1 April 2009

Meanwhile, waiting for his first children opera premiere in Vilnius, the composer mostly talks about the beauty of the native language unfolding in the libretto: “Although the terms and conditions of the contest did not require composing music for Lithuanian libretto, I have settled on the mythological tale by Martynas Vainilaitis while making the selection of the literary piece. I was fascinated by the beautiful and particularly rich language of this author, something that was also noted by the members of the commission. When presenting my work I wrote that nowadays even small kids use numerous loanwords and here we find beautiful Lithuanian words and sentences – a true relief to one’s soul.”

© Dalia Sverdiolienė

Lithuanian Music Link No. 17

Jonas Tamulionis (b. 1949)

Premiere: 20 March 2010 at Lithuanian National Opera and Ballet Theatre, Vilnius (