2021’s Perth Festival is centred around the theme of Bilya; river in the language of the Whadjuk Noongar people, upon whose lands the festival takes place. Freeze Frame Opera, a Perth-based company who regularly adapt classic operas for a modern audience, have embraced Bilya wholeheartedly, taking Dvořák’s Rusalka and transforming it into a production designed especially for children. The Little Mermaid takes an opera from the other side of the world and a different time and adapts it with a unique Western Australian voice, while at the same respecting children’s interest in storytelling and the arts.
Prudence Sanders and Caitlin Cassidy in Freeze Frame Opera’s The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Perth Festival
For those familiar with the plot of Dvořák’s Rusalka, it may not seem like the first choice of opera to perform for children, especially with themes of death and damnation in the third act. However, Freeze Frame have taken a leaf out of Disney’s Frozen’s book and adapted the story for a younger and more modern audience. Sung in English, as opposed to the original Czech, The Little Mermaid takes musical moments from Rusalka and works them into a story about responsibility, growing up, familial love and caring for the land. Far gone is the tale of doomed lovers, and in this case, it is for the better.
The other significant change Freeze Frame has made is the creation of a dedicated storyteller role, played by Jessie Ward, who acts as a medium between the audience and the musical performers. She regularly interacts with the characters on stage, as well as the children in the audience, asking for their thoughts and opinions on the story and characters, seemingly designed to help them gain a better understanding of what is going on. This was especially helpful for the audience as opera libretto is often hard to discern, even when sung in English.
Prudence Sanders and Jun Zhang in Freeze Frame Opera’s The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Perth Festival
The show opens with Jessie introducing herself and giving an acknowledgement of country, explaining to the audience exactly what that means and incorporating her own knowledge and experience as a Noongar woman and performer. The introduction also acted to establish a clear context, showing where the river setting is on a map whilst forming a connection with Perth’s own river, the Derbarl Yerrigan (Swan River).
Both spoken and sung parts of the performance were accompanied by pianist and Musical Director Caroline Badnall, the ‘musical storyteller.’ Combined with Robbie Harrold’s ocean debris-inspired set, and Jerry Reinhardt’s beautiful underwater lighting, the entire production seems akin to an episode of Play School, in the way it is welcoming, creative and lovingly created for children.
Soprano Prudence Sanders is The Little Mermaid, Rusalka, and her ‘Song to the Moon’ is a spell to help the moon rise, enabling the natural cycles of the tides. While she is weaving her spell, she is encountered by a prince, tenor Jun Zhang, and both he and the water spirit are bewitched by curiosity. Rusalka tells her father, played by Robert Hofmann, of her desire to travel to the human world, but he tells her it is too dangerous, and that she belongs in the river. Unconvinced, Rusalka visits the witch, Ježibaba, and pleads with for help reaching the human world. Ježibaba, played by mezzo-soprano Caitlin Cassidy, warns Rusalka that this will cost her voice and her magical song, only broken by true love’s kiss, which Rusalka agrees to. Having given her voice to the witch, Rusalka, now mute, seeks out the prince at his palace, and reunited, they begin setting up for an exciting party.
Robert Hofmann in Freeze Frame Opera’s The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Perth Festival
Ježibaba, wanting to be beautiful and feel loved herself, shows up at the party, and declares herself the real Rusalka, and, since she brandishes the mermaid’s own song, the prince believes her, and they agree to marry. Back in the river, Rusalka’s father finds her missing, and laments the fact he did not listen to her or respect her wishes properly. The river is beginning to dry up, and the moon no longer rises, now there is no one to sing it into the sky, and the natural environment is suffering for it.
The father confronts Ježibaba and the prince at their wedding, revealing she is not the real Rusalka, and the prince runs away confused. Ashamed of her impulsive decisions, Rusalka returns to the river with her father, who comforts and supports her, understanding her need to fulfil her curiosity is just part of growing up. Realising her father is the one who has loved her the longest, the spell is broken by a kiss on the cheek from him, and her magic is restored, so she can once again fulfil her responsibilities to return the world to its natural state. Both the Prince and Ježibaba return, apologetic, and the show ends with the entire cast singing together.
Freeze Frame Opera’s The Little Mermaid. Photo courtesy of Perth Festival
It’s promising to see the care and thought that has gone into making this production accessible, for both children and newcomers to the genre. Accessibility is perhaps the greatest issue facing opera in our times, and there are many barriers preventing potential audience members deciding to attend a show including cost, language and the elitist reputation the genre has gained in the 20th century onwards. Seeing children keen to get involved, cheering, asking questions of the storyteller and even dressing up for the performance gives me hope that innovative companies like Freeze Frame aren’t held back by traditions and expectations, and are spreading their love for opera to a brand-new audience.