W11 Opera is a remarkable company. Founded in 1971, it offers the invaluable opportunity for 80 schoolchildren aged nine-18 to participate in a brand new opera, created and produced by professionals.
This year’s swashbuckling project is based on the historical tale of Lady Mary Killigrew, a bored housewife who decided to become a pirate. Caught and sentenced to hang, she was reprieved with a pardon from Elizabeth I – who, Donald Sturrock’s lively and witty libretto plausibly suggests, sympathised with another strong female and wanted to reward her pluck.
With plenty of action, a fun sense of subversiveness, and triumph against the odds (the women-know-your-place male establishment), the story is a gift for the young cast, who throw themselves into it with passion, commitment and tangible joy.
Stuart Hancock’s score, cleverly tailored for mixed abilities, is an appealing blend of opera, musical, film soundtrack, hummable melodies and operatic sophistication. It is a feat for director Susan Moore just to fit the colossal cast onto the small stage at Hammersmith’s Polish Centre, yet everyone is fully involved and the action inventive and full of energy. The small professional band is superb (though, sadly, off-stage) and conductor Philip Sunderland keeps the music zipping along, deftly holding things together during the occasional wobble.
The joy is infectious – it is impossible not to feel elated at the incredible achievement of these young people, from 37 different West London schools, 25% on bursaries (including several from families affected by the Grenfell Tower disaster). The benefits for those involved are incalculable, and the result is polished family entertainment. We need more companies like W11 Opera.