Updated: Jan 23
In January 2017 I went to hear our then lodger Roza play a solo harpsichord lunchtime concert. She played brilliantly. And something happened that day that I experienced as a call to action. A woman in the audience had brought her children to the concert. They were maybe 6 and 9 and there was a baby in a sling.
The children listened quietly and intently. At one point the baby whimpered and the woman left the recital room with minimal disruption. The man sitting next to me tutted. Not just once but multiple times. He shook his head too. And huffed. He looked around at others for confirmation of his tutting and huffing and head-shaking.
The woman and her children were the only black faces in the room. Is that relevant? I don’t know.
I find it interesting that classical music audiences in our country tend to be predominantly white and of an age where there are no young children in tow. I also find it interesting that education/community outreach/learning and participation departments - I work for some of them - are spending a lot of effort and money trying to change this dynamic.
So one of the questions for me in starting B’Opera was, what if this dynamic were never created in the first place? What if we actually believed and behaved as if classical music was for everyone?
As a musician mum of very small children, I identified strongly with this mother. I know from experience that taking my children to classical music concerts is a gamble, can be delightful, can be stressful, and sometimes backfires spectacularly. I know as a musician and audience member that no-one wants a concert drowned out by a baby’s wails or a toddler’s tantrum. I also know that hearing live music benefits my children in a thousand ways, and that they learn how to be an audience member the way they learn everything else - by watching others and doing it themselves. I admire this woman for braving the tutting, and opening the doors of the concert hall to her children. I wondered whether, in order to behave as he did, the man next to me must believe on some level that he has more right to be there than her and her children, whether there is a sort of white, male privilege at play.
A few things came out of this experience directly - I spoke to the huffy man sitting next to me and said I believe children need to hear live music, as adults do. I spoke to a senior staff member at the venue and described what happened, asking if they had any provision or events for people with small children. I offered to help create some.
And then I went away, and with colleagues Jac and Phil, we conceived and designed B’Opera, where performances are interactive and specially created with little ones in mind. Interestingly, one thing we hear all the time is “I couldn’t believe how quiet and engaged a room full of babies and toddlers could be.”
We strive to remove all expectation that they should be quiet, and yet for much of the time they are because they are really listening. One thing is certain, whatever the babies and children do, no-one tuts or shakes their head.
Wonderfully, our society is starting to see a sea change in access to the arts for babies and little ones, with more accessible concerts, and the likes of Broadway shows opening their doors to very young audiences.
I am very proud of what we have created in B’Opera, and it is growing fast. Last year we wrote and performed our fifth baby opera, with Arts Council funding, and we serve Birmingham’s under-5s through a combination of weekly sessions at Birmingham Hippodrome, a relaxed concert series, and our interactive baby operas.
My dream is that one day, babies and toddlers of all backgrounds will be treated with as much care, respect and regard as any other audience member.