We caught up with composer Lucy Mulgan to talk about her children’s opera Red! which will be performed in Wellington on 4 August 2021 by NZ Opera, featuring singers Natasha Te Rupe Wilson, Catrin Johnsson and Robert Tucker, Orchestra Wellington and 200 schoolchildren, conducted by Brent Stewart.

How did the opportunity to create Red! Come about?

I work a lot with Barefoot Opera, an independent company based in Hastings here in the UK, and their Artistic Director Jenny Miller asked me to write a children’s opera and so Red! was born…

While composing Red! I was already talking to Orchestra Wellington about bringing this work home – so in my mind it was always an international beast. I think this is the first home-grown large scale opera with children since Jenny McLeod’s Earth & Sky?

Why did you choose the story of Red Riding Hood?

We decided to use a fairytale and ‘modernise it’. I landed on Red Riding Hood because I wanted a story with a strong non-male protagonist. Fairytales work brilliantly for opera because there is already so much drama and fabulous characters just waiting for a re-imagining.

What are the challenges of writing an opera aimed at younger audiences?

It was important when reimagining this story to include relevant issues – Red! addresses bullying, finding our independence and the strength of intergenerational relationships.

Red! is aimed at getting young people involved in opera. We want them to be excited about performing, creating and singing. The world of opera can be a way for them to find their own voice and feel confident. By standing next to professional opera singers and musicians who were once young Kiwis like them, maybe they feel inspired to follow in their footsteps?

In terms of the music, the melodies need to be strong, and then you add some funky rhythms and scrunchy harmonies…Voilà!

Tell us about the flexible aspects of the piece. How do you incorporate contributions from the young performers?

Red! was always designed to have creative input from the children. I like to think of it the other way – how can I make space in my score for them to create? I want my music to fit around theirs. The scene in the bush is sketched out in the orchestra – there are lines mimicking birds – Kōkako, Tui etc and these are written in such a way that they can be added into the soundscape that the children create. It’s a vital part of the children’s experience of Red! to know that they are co-creators, giving them a sense of ownership and understanding that their input is imperative to the final performance.

Have you made adjustments since the first production in the UK?

Yes, there have been some additions to Red! The UK performance was slightly shorter and had piano and bass accompaniment only. The version we’re performing on August 4th by NZ Opera and Orchestra Wellington includes a 20-piece orchestra – so a great chance for me to explore lots of orchestral colour. I liaised with the wonderful Jacqueline Coats (Director) and Brent Stewart (Music Director) last July & August and we discussed where we wanted sections of music extended and added and I went from there.

I always envisaged a work encompassing Aotearoa New Zealand and the UK – so I had in mind when I wrote it that the woods would translate into the bush…

Have you been able to make it back to Aotearoa for the rehearsals?

Sadly, I have only been able to Zoom into rehearsals in Aotearoa New Zealand and the pilot showing in Wellington last December.

Living in the UK, how has the pandemic affected your life and work?

It has been an incredibly tough 18 months, especially for musicians and creatives. We have effectively had 15 months of lockdown with a brief reprieve last summer. However, I have been fortunate to be involved in some fantastic online community composition and arranging projects, despite there being no chance to perform live. Personally I’ve been fine, but for 4 months over our winter I only saw 3 people – my husband, my mother-in-law and a close friend. That was really difficult and we have struggled to readapt to socialising and interacting again.

Now we are opening up and performing again (YAY) – everything still has to be socially distanced and mainly outside (as we are in summer here), but it feels good!

Of course the pandemic almost stopped Red! from happening as we were due to perform in late June when the lockdown hit in Wellington. But thanks to the awesomeness of NZ Opera and Orchestra Wellington, we managed to find a new date very quickly.

What are your future plans for Red! ?

It would be great to take Red! to other centres across Aotearoa. Barefoot Opera is planning to do more performances in 2022 / 2023 and I have been in contact with other opera companies in the UK about performances in the near future…one may even be performed in a forest! Watch this space…