Alice in Wonderland: an opera is born

Sarah Crabtree, who was involved in the commissioning of the piece, talks to composer Will Todd about OHP’s spanking new opera

Surely all the best plans are concocted over a cup of tea; in our case it was on a Soho rooftop on a blustery spring day back in April 2011. Nearly two years later Opera Holland Park is on the verge of producing its very first new commission and staging its first world premiere, and our composer Will Todd and I are back where it all began, mulling over how we got here, what’s next for him and for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Following the initial furore amongst the twitterati and OHP’s most ardent supporters following the announcement last November that OHP are to produce a family opera based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, it’s back to business; there’s casting to complete, design concepts to sign off and, for Will, orchestration and other final details to iron out.

It’s been quite a year for Todd, following the success of his commission Call of Wisdom to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee at St Paul’s Cathedral last summer. A prolific composer from the age of seven, Will is best known for his choral works, in particular his hugely successful Mass in Blue, a full liturgical setting full of his trademark jazz-influenced melodies and gutsy choruses; but his talent for evocative melodic writing makes the stage a natural showcase, and he already has a clutch of operas and stage works under his belt. “Working with OHP has been very inspiring. The producers have strong ideas, but they also wanted me to be myself and supported all my ideas – they have been incredibly enthusiastic at every turn, really.”

When James and I approached Will, like the handful of others privy to our plans he couldn’t believe that nobody had thought of it before. Following the success of Fantastic Mr Fox, a semi-promenade, site-specific Alice for families among the trees, shrubs and giant chessboards of Holland Park seemed a perfect and obvious next step for the company. Of course, many others have tackled the Alice story with varying degrees of success on the opera stage and beyond; it’s a story that nearly 150 years after its creation still fascinates. This year alone will see Alice return to stage and screen with the Michael Grandage Company producing Peter and Alice in the West End in its inaugural season, the return of the Royal Ballet’s hugely successful new show and rumours of a follow-up to Tim Burton’s psychedelic 2010 film.

Will and I agree that what is often missing is the childish nonsense of Carroll’s original; productions seldom capture the story from a child’s perspective, choosing to focus on the hallucinogenic madness and allegories that often go over the heads of younger audiences. Still, the title alone is a great pull for audiences, which Will says can be “good and bad: it means people will definitely come – but they will come with high expectations. But we’ve created an exciting and fun version!”

One challenge was to make a story that children of the 21st century could engage with, while remaining faithful to Carroll’s original. I asked Will how he gets started. “You need to get a sense of what the dramatic shape is – what’s the story? If the initial shape is not good it’s impossible to write a decent piece. With Alice we needed to find a strong shape since the original is very episodic, which doesn’t usually work well on stage. Audiences want to know where they are heading! – and there have to be key elements to hang the story off and weave it together: you couldn’t have an Alice story without the Mad Hatter, White Rabbit, Queen of Hearts or Cheshire Cat, but what we needed for the piece to succeed on stage was a journey while still maintaining a strong sense of Wonderland, a dreamlike world where children can escape reality, and nonsense rules.” Alice also meets the aged White Knight and an irritating know-all of a Humpty Dumpty on her way through Todd’s Wonderland, and all these characters have their own musical identities, adding colour and depth to the score and story.

In October, the first edition of a piano and vocal score landed on our desks in the Production Office ahead of a week of workshops at the Jerwood Space in Southwark; it seemed to have arrived remarkably quickly after sealing the deal under the canopy at the theatre in the summer. We had been warned that it was not unusual for singers to turn up on the first day of production rehearsals only to be presented with an incomplete work that management had yet to approve, so we were clearly setting off on the right foot, and Will works quickly, despite “lots of deliberating” at the outset. “I try to write quickly to keep a good sense of flow to the piece. Once I have the main tunes mapped out I can work pretty fast.” And what is so wonderful about this Alice are its tunes! In November we gathered a selection of our favourite singers, director Martin Duncan and favourite OHP conductor Stuart Stratford, and packed ourselves off to Southwark.

Here we worked hard for five days fuelled by yet more tea and much cake (there are always a surprising number of birthdays during these periods!), shaping the music and text, cutting material here and adding things there. For James and me as producers and for Will, this week at the Jerwood Space surrounded by others putting together theatre all over the building was “crucial – however experienced you are at writing for the stage, things only come alive when sung and acted. The workshop showed me what to alter, which has made a great improvement. It was an amazing week with fabulous music staff, a director and nine brilliant singers who worked really hard to bring the piece to life.” We shared Alice for the first time at the end of that week with a select group who saw a “stagger-through” of the piece as it stands.

It was a nerve-racking time, with feedback crucial to the piece’s development, including from the children present who had to use their imaginations given there were no set, costume or props. Will was particularly nervous about the response from his brood: “It was scary – children are the harshest critics – if they get bored you are finished!!” Thankfully the piece had a fantastic reception, especially from the children, and so the next day the green light was given. Now all that’s needed is to polish it up, consolidate the changes, and make Alice better than ever ready for its premiere in July 2013.

We’re still nervous, of course… But with the workshop behind us, we know we’ve made a new opera which will surprise and delight audiences through the summer. And this time, it’s our very own creation, right from the start. It’s a fantastic feeling.

Sarah Crabtree is Associate Producer of Opera Holland Park