In March this year, Victorian Opera staged a new opera called Baby Bilby Sings to introduce babies and toddlers aged three and under to the artform. Then the coronavirus hit and subsequent performances had to be cancelled. Instead, the company has adapted the 30-minute performance into an interactive, online book about a curious native Australian bilby who burrows his way to different countries and meets operatic characters along the way. Throughout the story, children can activate music from operas including Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, Delibes’ Lakmé, Verdi’s Rigoletto, and Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love among others. There is also a chirpy refrain composed by VO’s Artistic Director Richard Mills. Ioanna Salmanidis, VO’s Education Manager, spoke to Limelight about the new book.

An illustration by Mel Serjeant from the online book Baby Bilby Sings. Image courtesy of Victorian Opera

Baby Bilby Sings began as a new program for under threes in March this year. How long was the project in development?

We began working on the project in November last year and presented the program in March. It was an entirely new concept to the company so the team that developed it sought the advice of a range of experts who worked in presenting music-based programs for babies and toddlers. We ran a couple of focus groups and trialled two different delivery methods. It was quickly apparent that the second of those, which was a mini-opera performance, was more engaging and popular.

Why do you think it is important to take opera to such young children?

We don’t believe that there’s a lower age limit to experiencing opera and want to introduce everyone to the wonders of this art form, no matter their age. Opera is a sonic experience as much as it is a visual one and the operatic voice has a commanding presence both when experienced live and through a recording. You always remember the first time you heard it!

How successful were the performances in March?

We presented two performances before cancelling later performances because of the pandemic. They were very successful and the children that attended were engaged throughout the entire 30-minute performance. We had a good representation of age-range across the two shows and it was very interesting to observe how different ages responded. The very young babies were transfixed by the singing and movement involved, while there was more curiosity from the toddlers, with some moving around freely to explore the set and to discover where the singers got to ‘off-stage’. The parents also really enjoyed the experience as many of them had never heard or seen an opera before; being introduced to opera at the same time as their children made it extra special.

I believe an earlier story had been scrapped because it wasn’t engaging the children?

It was the first version that we trialled with the focus group and was more of an interactive, concert-style version, but it wasn’t engaging enough. We had devised a list of songs, from opera and other styles of music to sing to and with the group. We decided to write an opera as we wanted to make sure that our product was unique to what was already on the market, but more importantly that it highlighted what we do as a company and why opera is so special.

What are the main challenges in performing opera for such young children?

Some of the biggest challenges we faced were ensuring the story kept moving and that the excerpts we used were short and easy to listen to. We also incorporated lots of movement and a couple of activities that both children and their parents could follow along. Finally, we had to be conscious of the volume that singers were performing at and to try to keep it on the softer side so we didn’t hurt or upset the youngest members of our audience.

When did the idea for a book based on the program come about? And whose idea was it?

It wasn’t too soon after the first lockdown that the idea came about. Carlos Bárcenas (who co-wrote the initial libretto with me and performed in the opera) and I were talking about the program and we wanted to continue sharing it with the community despite everything that was happening. We then set to work adapting it in this wonderful book.

An illustration by Mel Serjeant from the online book Baby Bilby Sings. Image courtesy of Victorian Opera

I believe the illustrations were done by VO’s Costume Supervisor Mel Serjeant. How did that come about? 

Yes, Mel has done a wonderful job with the illustrations. When I mentioned the idea to turn the opera into a book to our CEO Elizabeth Hill-Cooper, she mentioned that Mel is a very talented artist and illustrator and suggested I approach her to be involved. We spoke about the project and she immediately came on board. I went through the libretto, adding notes about what the set in the performance looked like to give her an idea of the world we had created. She came back about a week later with a very rough draft of what the illustrations could look like and it was as if she had taken a sneak-peek into my mind!

Did you play with different styles of illustration?

Mel does play with different styles in her artistic work so we had a bit of an initial discussion about how the illustrations should look and what we were trying to achieve and then she took it from there.

How happy are you with the way it’s turned out?

I am so happy with how it’s turned out and I’m incredibly proud to be a part of the amazing and talented team that created it. I think it’s a great representation of the opera we produced earlier this year, but I think its stands on its own feet really well, too.

Have you tried the book out on young children yet?

Yes, we have. As part of the final stages of putting the book together, we sent it to a few different staff members and asked them to try it out with any young children in their life. We wanted to test both the user-friendliness of the platform we built it on, and whether it held a child’s attention. Thankfully, we received very positive feedback in both areas and only made some minor changes.

Why did you decide to make the book free online, with an option to pay what you feel?

We decided to make the book free online as we don’t want to put any limits in place as to who can experience it. We put the option to pay what you feel as we realised that there would be people in the community who might like to contribute to it, so provided them with the opportunity.

Do you hope to develop another program for young children next year? 

Absolutely. I think the success of the opera earlier this year has shown that there are people out there who want to experience opera with their children. It’s also so much fun to create!

And maybe another book depending how well this one goes?

Definitely another book as well. We are already brainstorming ideas for the next adventure!

Baby Bilby Sings is now available to read online for free, with an option to donate