By sheer coincidence I was so fortunate to become involved in developing opera performances for children just after having received my diploma as a classical singer almost 30 years ago. We were a group of young singers who thought this might be fun – and an opportunity to create our own shows without anybody deciding for us what we should do with them. True entrepreneurship – today a subject taught at the Conservatory, but then we didn’t know that this was the name of what we did. And it was certainly not a subject to be taught at the Music Conservatory back then. We just did it and learned from it.
And the most important things I learned was that the meetings with children as an audience led to meeting them as friends, as co-creators and as human beings on an equal footing. The audience became my helpers, inspiring the artistic expressions moving in new directions and creating new formats- even without their knowing it.
From the children I learned the necessity of being constantly conscious of the relation between stage and audience in order to give and receive focus and relevant and gratifying experiences. I learned the process of refining and crystallizing – of taking away any unnecessary or redundant information and leaving just the core behind. For the past 17 years this has been my job at Den Jyske Opera/ Danish National Opera – where I produce, conceptualise, and devise opera productions and experiences for and with children from 0 – 12 years.
Another part of my job is to work with international partners and create and participate in networks in the field of opera education. A very important network here has been the European Network for Opera and Dance Education, Reseo, where I met Companhia de Musica Teatral and Helena and Paulo Rodrigues as extremely inspiring and gifted colleagues. Over the years we have collaborated in several ways , and it was this collaboration that led me to Lisbon this summer and into the state of being lost in translation – but found in creation.
I was so privileged to be able to choose between being observer or participant in Dabo Domo, one weeks immersive training as a residency with Companhia Musica Teatral at Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon.
Being a practitioner and performer more than an analyst or musicologist I decided to participate actively the whole week. I felt that in order to be able to get a true understanding of the methods and possibility of the immersive training I had to feel it on my own body and soul.
And like Bill Murray’s character in the film Lost in Translation by Sophia Ford Coppola I did experience being in a situation where most of the linguistic meeting was quite unintelligible. To a Dane Portuguese may not be quite as strange as Japanese but it is still quite strange! And although I am grateful to a lot of my fellow participants and to the teachers as well for their very kind and patient help as translators there were long stretches of the day where I just had to read body language, movements, face expressions, sound, and more than anything use my imagination and mirror what I saw. Just like the babies and toddlers who slmost everyday find themselves in new situations with new impressions and new people.
Being on unknown territory I was so privileged to experience everything with an open mind without questioning all the time.
There were unknown codes to decipher – linguistic, cultural, social, physical in order to find out what I was supposed to do and when. The first day we had physical training for no less than 5 hours (or at least it felt like this) and my poor old body had certainly not been dancing around like that for many years!
In this state of being lost in translation the coming home-feeling was very accurate when we started improvising with music and voice.
Here I knew some of the codes and felt that I was on safe ground. Language became completely unimportant as music transcends borders and the use of our voice to communicate without language is familiar to us all: in laughter, humming, whispering, gibberish, playing with sounds of all kind – just because we can make them. It is just fun! It is something that we do as tiny children and it still comes natural to us as adults – at least if we are not stopped by our fears and inhibitions.
Being in immersive training as part of a group of people with different backgrounds, professions, even different generations was a very rewarding experience and since there was no occasion for people to present what they were doing in their everyday life, it was of no consequence whether you as a participant came from a pedagogical, educational, academic or artistic background. Or whether you were an actor, a dancer, a musician, a singer or something else – or even all of it.
We were all just human beings in search of inspiration, tools and experiences designed to create important moments in the lives of others and ourselves.
Whether the course was to be used as training in a formal sense or “only” as inspiration seemed not decisive. Underlying the whole project of GerminArte lies the same current of generosity that shows itself in all the work of Companhia Musica Teatral – a generosity that to my mind is sorely needed in the world of arts, of academia as well as in the world of everyday life.
Humour is an important ingredient if we want to communicate with others and create trust in a generous way – and there were lots of laughs and enjoyment during the training days. But always laughing with – and not laughing at.
Everyone was pushed out of his or her comfort zone from time to time and it was inspiring to see the way that each of the 25 individuals were shown a specific path or range of expressions to refine and work on as the training developed. For some it was a lack of trust in vocal capability, to others maybe feeling uneasy or blocked in movement. But no matter where you might feel challenged there was the possibility of immediately saying yes to change or if needed to back off a bit and renew your courage. And after all, what did we have to lose?
Slowly as the first 2 days went by it became clear to me that I was actually being moved from a state of control to a state of openness, heightened creativity and no strict limitations. I felt extremely free being outside my usual environment, inspired to improvise and allowed just to experiment and try things out. When we play we become playful, when we create we become creative. Kids do this unknowingly all the time but as adult, professionals we have to be reminded from time to time. And I can strongly recommend aging professionals such as myself to keep going back to new training opportunities and dare challenge ourselves to move in new directions where we are not specialists – yet.
During the day when we did all kind of exercises leading towards the end performance Sunday where families with babies where invited to our special show in the wonderful Gulbenkian Garden ( but very important not ONLY to this), I concentrated on testing and trying things out and not on analyzing them or worrying about method. But when we ended the day seeing a workshop or practical encounter between artists and babies I enjoyed using both the experiences of the day and my already existing professional experience to analyze and read the interactions and see how they worked. The training seemed to bring me closer to the way the babies experienced in the moment – a sensory and emotional kind of experiencing – whereas my professional analytical capacity supported the intellectual experience. So heart and mind met in the most satisfactory way at the end of the day.
One very important experience that I brought home with me was not new – but one that we all need to renew from time to time:
In order to succeed we must allow ourselves to fail and try again. If perfection becomes the goal in itself we will never succeed. It is a demanding task not to be in full control of the moment when you are the one creating the artistic content – but when we interact with children you must never expect to control the moment. If you do so you lose the most important source of inspiration and true artistic expression.
Children will not punish you if you fail – they accept that we are all in process because this is where they are themselves – as long as they can feel that you truly want to share the moment with them on their terms. The challenge lies in finding the balance between your own artistic need of expression, maybe the need of the artistic product/production and the child’s need of relationship, of taking part and finding its own space in the moment and feeling safe at the same time. The younger the child the more need for improvisation and being ready for whatever may happen in the very moment.
When the group tested our various scenes on a small group of babies we learned (of course!) – that things did not work out quite – or at all- as planned. For instance there are things to prepare and consider about the space you are in and the objects present. For a two year old a drum or an odd object left in a corner by mistake can be much more interesting than the singer or dancer right in front trying to keep his or her attention with beautiful movements or sounds. So we have to decide what to control and what to keep open – why and how. Things that are in the space must all be open to be used – or not be there at all.
Training, planning, creating, rehearsing and after all that still be able to let it all go in the moment in order create something unforeseen and more appropriate right then – that’s the beauty and challenge of it all.
The final day of Dabo Domo was a beautiful conclusion of an amazing week. Looking at our final show with a dramaturg’s analytical and coolheaded professionalism might not end up with a 6 starred review. I am sure that some of the rather strange things that happened in the corners of the garden that beautiful Sunday morning only give meaning seen in the context of the training week.
For instance I found myself embracing trees and playing hide and seek in various manners in the most childish and probably also clumsy ways if you look for choreographic precision. However, everything gave a deep meaning, experiencing the focused attention of the babies and their parents, the curiosity, the smiles and the wondering gazes.
The togetherness and dedicatedness of the group was very special – the feeling of having found each other in creation. When we open ourselves to the moment and to the human beings with whom we share this moment, nothing at all gets lost in translation – because all the codes are just about being humans together.
After coming back home to my everyday work life the most important thing I have implemented it is not a specific tool or method learned during the residency in Lisbon. It is not the musical material, the fantastic special instruments or the movement sessions. It is the courage and decision to allow myself to improvise more and to be open to the moment and its challenges. Whether in interactions with children or professionals in training. To enter the space or the interaction with all senses open and ready to learn from the participants – and still creating the structure and the framework that is necessary in order to create a good and safe space for them to be in.
I think it is a privilege to be working in the field of creating meetings between children of all ages and art. To me it is intensely gratifying to keep developing new ideas, new meetings, new artistic paths, directly inspired by children and created through interaction with children.
Interacting with the early years and creating productions to be performed for and with babies and toddlers is an urge that has grown in me for some time – inspired by the works of CMT and other European companies. There are more reasons for this than just artistic curiosity and the fact that this is the only age group that we haven’t created opera productions for – yet.
I think that the need derives from a deeper place and reflects the way that we as human beings struggle in a world that incessantly exposes us to far too much, too fast and too chaotic informations and impressions. Serious stress is becoming the most common of diceases and in Denmark it’s now even located as early as in children 1o years old. We search for peace and quiet and relations that are simple. natural and free, where we are just met with a curious stare, a smile and an immediate and genuinely human response.
And to find this we need to look for those that haven’t lost themselves yet – because they are still close to the beginning of everything. As adults we have the chance to get back to the best version of ourselves when we interact with babies and children – as artists we have the chance of creating artistic expressions that are true and truly human.
We need to defend the right of any child to meet art as a means of growing as a human being and fight against the utilitarian tendency to see arts as a means for something else, like abilities to learn language, math, or even in support of nationalistic agendas. I think we do this in the best way when we have the courage to open ourselves, to try new things and to do this together with others – in training, in production and in life.
BY BIRGITTE HOLT NIELSEN
PRODUCER OF OPERA FOR YOUNG AUDIENCES, ARTISTIC DIRECTOR GROWOP! FESTIVAL
DANISH NATIONAL OPERA/DEN JYSKE OPERA
This article is a revised version of my presentation at VII INTERNATIONAL COLLOQUIUM ARTS FOR CHILDHOOD AND SOCIAL AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT at Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation Oct 28th 2017