Opera can be tricky. Often mired in stereotypes and preconceived expectations around everything from length to audience etiquette, it frequently comes with higher barriers to entry than other forms of theatre. Frog Song, directed by Liza Balkan in its world premiere production at Here for Now Theatre, confronts these barriers, taking on the challenge of creating a children’s opera which is not only true to the genre, but also meaningful to audiences of all ages.
The one-act show (book by Taylor Marie Graham) follows Navdeep (Priya Khatri) and Wyatt (Ben Skipper), two pre-teens paired together for a summer camp’s fairytale-themed singing competition. With the encouragement of the dramatic but insightful counsellor Jay (Derek Kwan), the unlikely duo must learn to work together, however, this collaboration isn’t all smooth sailing.
Navdeep’s pride and desire to succeed conflict with Wyatt’s prickly reticence (deftly portrayed in a standout performance by Skipper), and to make matters worse, both kids are haunted by strange dreams of ominous frogs (roles assumed by chorus members Megan Dart, Michael Neale, and Luci Sanci, with the help of incredibly effective choreography by movement director Patrice Bowler).
As the two slowly overcome their differences, the piece tackles themes like grief, empathy, and acceptance, drawing the audience in with its whimsical premise while exploring experiences I expect will ring true across all age groups.
Graham’s book is set to music by composer William Rowson, who also serves as the principal conductor and music director of the Stratford Symphony Orchestra (co-producer of Frog Song in a first-time collaboration with Here For Now). Rowson’s score doesn’t shy away from operatic idioms (think lush harmonies and soaring soprano notes), and as a result Frog Song provides an accurate yet kid-friendly introduction to the genre for young people experiencing opera for the first time.
The occasional lines of spoken dialogue throughout help to break up some of the density that can come with a sung-through story, and often lend themselves well to moments of humour. Narratively, the incorporation of fairy tales (Jack and the Beanstalk and East of the Sun and West of the Moon make notable appearances, alongside shades of The Frog Prince) also provide a fun and familiar twist on the tradition of basing operas on well known fables and myths.
Here For Now’s venue also lends a certain magic to the performance. Set outdoors in a small, three-sided tent behind the Stratford Perth Museum, the fictional world of the story blends seamlessly with this natural environment. It’s easy to imagine the tent and the field beyond it being part of a summer camp, and the natural sounds of birdsong and cicadas add to the atmosphere. Frog Song isn’t necessarily site-specific (it was workshopped indoors at MT Space’s 2019 IMPACT Theatre Festival), but the physical space that Here For Now’s production inhabits makes the experience all the more immersive.
Balkan’s direction heightens this immersion, as she makes use of the space not only on the small stage inside the tent, but also beyond it. While the main action happens on the stage, chorus members can often be seen outside, chatting or playing games, and on a few memorable occasions appear in gaps in the tent walls, surrounding the audience on three sides.
Inside the tent itself, projections by Beth Kates help to differentiate between the summer camp and the more fantastical, frog-inhabited dreamworld, and Bonnie Deakin’s set and costume design, with its bright colours and rich textures, adds to the playfulness of the space. With the audience only feet from the performers, it’s easy to pick up on the details and nuances of their acting. The only downside to this small, intimate venue is that the actors’ powerful voices occasionally feel a bit too big for it, with the force and intensity of the singing more than filling the space.
In her program note, Here For Now’s artistic director Fiona Mongillo writes that “we are all in the muck of our humanity and doing the best we can with the tools that we have.” Frog Song asserts that this is as true for young people as it is for adults, recognizing both the complexity of their life experiences, and their capacity for appreciating story. And while Frog Song doesn’t shy away from being an opera, it does provide an addition to the genre which is a bit more open and accessible to both kids and adults alike.
Frog Song runs at Here for Now Theatre Company until August 12. Tickets are available here.
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