Thursday, October 23, 2008

Opera or Musical: Varjak Paw, a new???... opera?

According to the Leamington Observer, Julian Philips has written his first opera, Varjak Paw. However, if you go to the Warwick Arts Centre, where the opera is to be first performed they are calling it a musical. With music by Julian Philips and lyrics Kit Hesketh-Harvey, Varjak Paw is based on the best-selling books by S F Said.

Mr Philips says he is writting a "rather dizzying mixture of opera, musical theatre, cabaret and Arabic music." I don't mean to contradict his own impression of his work, but I always though cabaret classified as musical theatre, for that matter so does opera, although I will accept that most people think musiCALS when they think musical theatre and an opera is different than an musical.

With an illustrious classical background with numerous awards for his vocal music, an orchestral commission by the Britten Symphonia and most recently the full length ballet Les Liaisons Dangereuses commissioned by English National Ballet and choreographed by Michael Corder, Philips skills as a classical composer is evident. Perhaps what is meant by Varjak Paw being an opera is the music is more of a classical feel and form, rather than the typical strophic song style of musicals and caberets. But then Philips says it's part that too.

Another article at glyndebourne.com, (Philips is composer-in-residence at Gylndebourne) mentions another first opera Dolffin (2006) and a chamber opera commissioned by the Welsh National Opera, Wild Cat. I couldn't find any song samples, so it's hard to tell what the music is like. Perhaps the best clue into understanding what Varjak Paw is in terms of music is an obscure post here, by Jullian Philips himself.

"The answer lies embedded in Kit’s libretto to a large extent, as much of the street cats’ text alludes more to cabaret, musical theatre or the blues than opera. Razor and Luger have a very slinky duet in Act 2 – When you want a real cat – and their metre and rhymes are heavily imbued with the traditions of the American musical; Luger’s aria in Act 5 – Here’s for fools who come along – feels like pure cabaret while the Scratch Sisters jump off the page as black soul divas, a kind of feline Supremes."
  • Is this opera new? Yes, in the term it has recently premiered (September), but it's not Philips' first.
  • Is it entertaining? Certainly to young children as the review by a 13 year old suggests.
  • Is it opera? I think you can safely call it children's opera, which (IMHO) is an art form all its own. But to put it into the league of say "The Magic Flute" (referernce Philips own comments) is probably giving it too much credit.

I haven't seen it, or heard it, and, simply based on Philips other works it ought to be opera in the truest sense. Only, I couldn't find anything (to include reviews, although the Varjak Paw website sites several) that would suggest this was anything more than a diverting children's opera.

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