I have just watched John Barber’s youth opera The Selfish Giant at Garsington. And I can’t remember when I last heard a new opera – for any age-group – which gave me such unalloyed pleasure. In Karen Gillingham’s bandbox-bright production, seventy-five teenage amateurs held the stage with infectious enthusiasm and total conviction. The fact that the show had to be prepared under lockdown, and the performers had to rehearse in distanced isolation – in a space nothing like the stage they were due to appear on – was a minor miracle. Some of the performers were only eleven years old, but one could already see real talent waiting to emerge.
The story by Oscar Wilde on which the opera is based has been skilfully adapted by the librettist Jessica Duchen. Engaging from the first bar onwards, the score has no trace of the awkward pretension which mars most new ‘grown-up’ operas; it is at once tonal and arrestingly original, full of atmosphere, and allowing the performers ample scope to project emotion and character. It would have helped to have had surtitles, and the very young soloists could have done with some judicious miking, but the professionals drafted in – baritone Matthew Stiff as the Giant, and coloratura soprano Barbara Cole Walton as the Linnet, plus players from the Philharmonia Orchestra – brilliantly anchored the show.
As a co-production with Opera North (who will mount their own production of this opera next year in Leeds), the show was made possible thanks to financial support from the Arts Council plus private donors, and also thanks to the fact that Garsington Opera put muscle behind it through its Learning and Participation Programme. Dalia, next year’s work in that programme which focuses on refugeedom, will be composed by Roxanna Panufnik, to another libretto by Jessica Duchen: it will be a People’s Opera involving youth companies, an adult community chorus, five professional soloists, and more players from the Philharmonia. While Covent Garden plays predictably safe, it’s significant that schemes like this should so effectively – and so enjoyably – be making the running in nurturing the operatic composers, performers, and audiences of tomorrow.