A Royal Collaboration

by Ryan Dougherty

The entire production brought dozens of students, staff, and faculty from five academic departments together with 10 students from Stetser Elementary School in nearby Chester to help ring out the celebration of Swarthmore’s sesquicentennialDaniel Underhill Professor of Music Tom Whitman '82 (center) says his goal was for the children from Stetser to "take ownership" of their contribution to the show. 

The Royal Singer: A New Children’s Opera, which premiered in the Lang Concert Hall on Sunday, transports the audience to a magical kingdom. It opens with a zebra, a frog, a cat, and an owl trying in spite of themselves to find a rhythm.

“It suggests both the complexity and the need to listen to one another and cooperate if they’re going to dance together, which tells us something about community,” says Sharon Friedler, director of the College’s Dance Program, who choreographed the production.

The subtext: no one character has the solution to the problem, but together they can find it. The concept underpins the entire production, which brought dozens of students, staff, and faculty from five academic departments together with 10 students from Stetser Elementary School in nearby Chester to help ring out the celebration of Swarthmore’s sesquicentennial.

Associate Professor of Music and Department Chair Barbara Milewski proposed a new children’s opera to highlight the College’s commitment to the arts, interdisciplinary collaboration, and community outreach. Why a children’s opera? On a practical level, says Milewski, it had the best chance of offering something to everyone.

“This is a complex art form that makes connections across disciplines — visual arts, dance, vocal and instrumental music, dramatic literature,” she says. “It stretches students beyond what is familiar to them, demonstrating that a mastery of the unknown is within their grasp.”

Based on an original scenario by Massachusetts playwright Stephen Russell, The Royal Singer featured a score from Daniel Underhill Professor of Music Thomas Whitman ’82 and a libretto from Professor of English Literature Nathalie Anderson. They had collaborated previously on productions such as A Scandal in Bohemia, but The Royal Singer presented new challenges.

“It was very different to come at a show from scratch,” says Anderson, “and I had never done work for children, so I wasn't quite sure how to go about that.”

group of performers
Clockwise from left: Kimaye Diggs '15, Bradley J. Carter '15, Kelley Langhans '16Aurora Martinez del Rio '16, Sarah Tupchong '17, Kyle Leigh Carney '16, Wesley Han '18, and Natasha Nogueira '18.

Who better to help answer that question than children? Enter the students of the Chester Children’s Gamelan Project, sponsored by the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility and the President’s Office. For eight years, Whitman and other community members have visited Stetser to introduce students to the rich performing arts traditions of Bali, Indonesia. The third through sixth graders learn how to play the Gamelan Angklung, a small percussion ensemble, among other traditions from around the world.

This year, the children participated in an after-school program to create their own music for The Royal Singer. Whitman’s goal was for them to “take ownership” of their contribution.

“We gave them free reign to be creative,” he says, “and they had some pretty strong ideas of what they wanted to do.” Drawing upon the theme of resolving conflict, the children composed a “Peace Song,” a “Wish-Fulfilling Song,” and a Balinese dance processional.

From the beginning, Whitman says, he and his colleagues envisioned an opera with a "hole" in it, to be filled by children from a local public school. They wanted to leave room for the production to evolve in the future, at other schools, creating a legacy for the original.

“I hope that when my six-year-old niece gets older, she can watch a recording of this opera and make it her own,” says Audrey Edelstein '15, a music major from Manhasset, N.Y., who spent the spring semester serving the production as musical director.

That flexible and playful nature of the production belies preconceptions some may have about opera. But the process of producing it affirms the notion of opera being “everything mixed together,” says Elizabeth Stevens, assistant professor of theater, who served as director.

“Usually, I have a lot more authorship on a production, coming in and deciding on a whole lot of things,” she says. “But this was a chance to collaborate with colleagues who had assembled a lot of the pieces already, and it was my job to find where they connected.”

Adds Sarah Branch ’17, an educational studies and sociology & anthropology special major and theater major from Madison, Wisc., who danced as The Owl: “I have never been a part of a performance with such an integral focus on community development across so many artistic disciplines. It’s been incredibly challenging and rewarding.”

It began with the support of producer Maurice Eldridge ’61, vice president of College and community relations, and the rest of the Sesquicentennial Committee, and soon drew collaborators from all corners. Among them, Laila Swanson, assistant professor of design, who designed costumes of vibrancy and whimsy, and Logan Grider, assistant professor of studio art, who installed a huge, circular backdrop to help tie the hemes together visually. Others pitched in behind the scenes.  

“I just saw a beautiful promotional poster that someone did for us, and I don’t know who, it just sort of appeared,” says Whitman in the days leading up to the premiere. “It’s very cool to have all these people working together on this thing, by far the most I’ve seen in my time here.

“To not know what I’m going to see the next time I walk into the building — there’s something magical about that.”

For more information on the production, which was performed again Tuesday at Stetser Elementary School, view the program [pdf].