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Maurice Sendak
15 Jun 2012

Oliver Knussen’s Sendak operas launch the Aldeburgh Music festival

Oliver Knussen’s two operas based on books by Maurice Sendak opened this year’s Aldeburgh Music Festival in exuberant style.

Oliver Knussen: Where the Wild Things Are & Higgelty Piggelty Pop!

Where the Wild Things Are — Max: Claire Booth; Mama: Susan Bickley; Moishe: Christopher Lemmings; Emil: Graeme Broadbent; Aaron: Jonathan Gunthorpe; Bernard: Graeme Danby; Tzippy: Charlotte McDougall.

Higgelty Piggelty Pop! — Jennie: Lucy Schaufer; Baby/Mother Goose: Susana Andersson; Rhoda/Baby’s Mother: Claire Booth; Cat-Milkman: Christopher Lemmings; Pig in the Sandwich Boards: Graeme Darby; Lion: Graeme Broadbent. Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh, England, 10th June 2012.

Above: Maurice Sendak


Where the Wild Things Are and Higgelty Piggelty Pop! are based on the books by Maurice Sendak, which presumably Knussen read with his daughter, Sonya. But Sendak’s books themselves spring from primeval sources. Nursery stories aren’t lullabies. They’re sinister. But children are fascinated. Perhaps when they go to sleep they need to be reassured that the dreams they encounter are just “stories” that they’ll wake from. Fantasy stimulates creativity. Knussen’s operas are for anyone of any age, who values imagination. Operas like these are good for our artistic (and mental) health. Britten wanted Aldeburgh to stimulate creative growth. Whether Knussen completes new work or not, he makes it possible for others to catch the spark.

In Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, a boy called Max is punished for dressing up as a wolf and escapes to a world of monsters. Sendak’s illustrations tell the story even more than the words do, so Netia Jones’s staging uses projections straight from the book. The staging’s not literal though, and incorporates the reality of theatre. Figures appear in silhouette and in ordinary clothes, but act and sing in character, so the video projections aren’t obscured. The orchestra can be seen clearly, so you can close your eyes and absorb the music, which is strikingly inventive. Four double basses and contrabassoon make the Wild Things roar, but Max (the vivacious Claire Booth) stands up to them. They look fierce but are rather cuddly. A bit like Knussen himself.

There were many children at the matinee I attended (ironically on what would have been Sendak’s 84th birthday), all of them attentive and well behaved. I asked two lads (8 and 11) how they felt. “I loved it when they appeared behind the screen” said one, while the other was fascinated by the instrumentation. They seem to have got a lot out of the experience. These are the kind of audiences we need, people who enjoy without prejudgement and respond imaginatively. Even when some children shouted, it added to the atmosphere.

Higgelty Piggelty Pop! was more subtle and communicated on many levels. It starts with a Pig-in-Sandwich Boards (Graeme Danby) offering ham sandwiches to those in the audience too young to appreciate the irony. The sandwiches also serve to keep the kids occupied when Jenny the Sealyham Terrier (Lucy Schaufer) sings a long, sophisticated aria, wondering if there’s “More to Life”. The projection behind shows the cartoon Jenny with a film of Schaufer’s mouth singing. Gradually voice and image begin singing different lines: fascinating, and musically astute. Jenny can’t get a job in the Mother Goose World Theatre until she gets “experience” whatever that might be. Whatever the Mother Goose World Theatre may be, for that matter. Logic is the enemy of imagination! Knussen fills the music with loony cross-references, like bits from Tchaikovsky and Mozart, barbershop quartets, brass bands evoking circuses. all woven into his distinctively intricate multi-layers. Like Birtwistle, Knussen loves mind games and multi levels. The effect is manic, the images anarchic, but the music is elegantly crafted, and played with complete conviction by the Britten Sinfonia, conducted by Ryan Wigglesworth.

Claire-Booth-as-Max.gifClaire Booth as Max in Where the Wild Things Are

Jenny’s transported by a cat (Christopher Lemmings) in a milk float to nurse a baby with a savage, demented glare. At least on the Sendak illustration. The Baby (Susana Andersson) is an adult with a piercing scream. How can Jenny placate this beast? Sendak’s images may be pretend Victorian, but these aren’t Victorian values. The Baby’s Mother (Claire Booth) tells Jenny to let a Lion (Graeme Broadbent) bring the Baby back to her, and so the story ends happily ever after. Or does it? Three surprise “endings” to whip up excitement. It’s perfectly in order to laugh and clap as we emerge from the fantasy of the story to the fantasy of the mock toy theatre proscenium. Has Jenny, and have we, found the Mother Goose World Theatre?

This Knussen double bill will be repeated at the Barbican Hall, London in November, with Netia Jones’s multimedia presentation. Don’t be put off if you can’t go with a child. Go with the Child in Yourself, and benefit even more. Netia Jones’s Before Life and After comes to Aldeburgh from 20 to 22nd June and moves to the Cheltenham Music Festival thereafter. This is a show built round Britten’s Winter Words, Finzi’s A Young Man’s Exhortation and Tippett’s Boyhood’s End. James Gilchrist sings. It’s a tour de force.

Lucy-Schaufer-as-Jennie.gifLucy Schaufer as Jennie in Higgelty Piggelty Pop!

Oliver Knussen conducted the Scottish Chamber Orchestra the previous evening in a typically intricate puzzle of a programme. Charles Ives’s Washington’s Birthday, rather appropriate as Aldeburgh’s celebrating Knussen’s birthday this year. Diaphanous textures, exquisitely defined by this excellent orchestra. Very similar orchestration (harp and piano on concerto) to Alexander Goehr’s Marching to Carcassonne (2002 rev 2005) with Peter Serkin, with whom Knussen has been closely connected for many years. Serkin understands the Don Quixote spirit of the piece, where Knights march into battle but go round in circles, never reaching their goal. The harpist is Serkin’s Sancho Panza, the harp’s pedal held down so the strings play tautly, like a medieval stringed instrument. Goehr’s sense of humour, which Knussen has inherited. Surprise non-endings, as in Higgelty Piggelty Pop! Goehr was roundly applauded, and beamed.

Stravinsky’s Movements for piano and orchestra followed, and three movements from Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, superbly played. We don’t hear the SCO nearly often enough in London (though there’s a lot about them on this site, as they are favourites). Then Geoffrey Norris appeared and presented Knussen with a Critics’ Circle award for Outstanding Musician. “But I didn’t finish the piece I was planning” said Knussen. It hardly matters. Quality is better than quantity, and there are many ways of being a true musician.

Anne Ozorio

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