Frank and Bert in Opera! a blog by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros - Nosy Crow Skip to content
Posted on May 20, 2024

Frank and Bert in Opera! a blog by Chris Naylor-Ballesteros

We are so happy to have published the newest Frank and Bert title in the series, Frank and Bert: The One With the Missing Biscuits in March – a hilarious picture book series from author Chris Naylor-Ballesteros. Today we are very excited to be sharing a blog from Chris, himself, about a Frank and Bert opera adaptation! 

 

Ill be honest, Frank & Bert – The Opera werent words that I expected to hear in the same sentence. So when Richard Whilds of the Bavarian State Opera wrote to me in late 2022 proposing just that, I was amazed. Id never imagined this kind of adaptation for any of my books and was very excited at seeing how it might develop. Richard had written music for a previous opera for children called Der Mondbär (The Moon Bear) to great success and was looking for a book to base his new work on, telling me out of a dizzying pile of books, both the director and I had a clear favourite: Frank and Bert.

 

So the wheels were set in motion and eventually, at the start of March 2024, I made a four-day trip to Munich with a group of English and German friends to see the production on the second day of its run, which would take place in a large room specially adapted to allow children to feel unconfined and free to move around during the performance.

 

The Bavarian State Opera is located in the Munich National Theatre, an imposing building fronted by neo-classical columns and enormous metal doors. Half an hour before the show, one of them swung open and I was greeted by Julia Kessler-Knopp, who is responsible for the operas community and childrens work. She showed me in and led me to the performance space, allowing a sneak preview of preparations for the afternoon performance.

 

Seeing the decor was incredible – the landscapes that had been created with pencil and paper in my untidy little home studio had become real objects, a little playground for the actors to run around and hide in. It was all recreated beautifully with knitted grass and flowers, it looked inviting and magical. The set and costume designer Jan Ludwig had worked hard to represent the textures on the page in real-life. The musicians (violin by Gyujeen Han, clarinet by Martina Beck-Stegemann and Markus Schön, drums by Carlos Rubio Amondarain and guitar by Klaus Jackle) were dressed in the same kind of material, allowing them to blend in with the landscape. The musicians and their instruments were mobile so they could play a real part in the action on stage, not just a musical accompaniment.

 

Frank and Bert were performed by Ulrich Reß and Christian Rieger, two of the opera houses most distinguished singers. Ulrich had even been tempted out of retirement to take on the role of Frank. The rapport between them as the fox and bear duo was lovely to see, playing warm-up games of hide and seek as the audience came into the room and took their places. Their costumes were perfect, all tussled fur and face make-up, with the woolly hat and the scarf they wore designed and made to play the important roles they have in the story, unravelling on cue and being unwound around the whole stage behind the actors movements.

 

Richards music was wonderful. Though written for a young audience, he intended his compositions to have the flavour and background of opera, rather than that of a stage musical. So the pieces were sophisticated but energetic, playful and very, very catchy. Two of the main pieces were the musical accompaniment to counting to a hundred by both Frank, and then later by Bert. They transformed the long, multi-page enumeration of the book into a joyous sing-along, the children taking part in Frank and Berts concentrated struggle to count to such a seemingly huge number.

 

I had an amazing weekend. The opera was a total joy to see and to also spend time in beautiful Munich with friends for the occasion was unforgettable.

 

Thank you to the entire team from the Bayerische Staatoper for making it happen. Hopefully Ill see them again for the second run next year!

 

Richard Whilds, Composer

There were numerous challenges facing us in transforming this beautiful book into a work for the stage. Separating it into sections comprised of duets, arias and musical interludes was the first. It is always more satisfying to sing verse rather than prose, so that was the second one. The musical side was relatively easy for me because the ying/yang, two-sides-of-a-coin relationship between Frank and Bert led me to some fun and easy musical concepts (Frank has a high voice and Bert a low one) and some rather more pretentious ones that we composers like to indulge in (Frank sings in B flat major and Bert sings in E major and the whole piece jumps backwards and forwards between those keys). I wanted the musicians to not just sit in a corner and accompany but to be an integral part of the action and, therefore, chose instruments that could easily be carried. 

 

Ultimately the greatest inspiration came from the words and drawings in Chris book and the rather unexpectedly emotional impact at the heart of it. Perfect for opera!

 

Laura Schmidt, Dramaturg

When my colleague Catherine Leiter, head of our outreach and community department, discovered Frank and Bert in a library over a year ago and proposed to adapt it into a little opera for young audiences, we were all thrilled by this beautiful book. It was the start of a wonderful journey into the poetic world of a little fox and a little bear, who are best friends and spend most of their time playing, over and over again. Our composer Richard Whilds, originally from Nottingham in England, contacted Chris and he was very open to the idea of transforming his book into a musical theatre piece. So an exciting creative journey began. Richard, the director Friederike Blum and myself started meeting up together on a regular basis. Richard would compose some music, and we would put some lyrics to it, or sometimes the text came first and Richard would develop the music. It was highly inspiring to share ideas, to listen to the songs together, to reflect on how to transform the book and its story into a stage version in German. Soon Jan Ludwig became part of the team, creating costumes and a set design. As a group we found it essential to celebrate the power of playing and being friends, being empathetic with each other and not focussing on winning or losing or who is stronger. We wanted to protect this central idea of the book, one that exists in a world of competition and the survival of the fittest and cleverest.

 

Then in February rehearsals started. Four weeks of intense work with our great castthe two singers, Ulrich Reß and Christian Rieger, and musicians from our orchestra, the Bayerisches Staatsorchester. A violinist, a percussion player, a clarinetist and a guest guitarist came together to interpret Richard’s challenging and charming compositions. Once a week different children’s groups joined our rehearsals, to give feedback on what had been developed.

 

At last the opening afternoon arrived. All of us were so grateful to finally be able to present this new piece to a young (and older) audience, after having spent about a year walking around with fantastic Frank and brilliant Bert in our minds and hearts, and to give them a three dimensional life here in Munich, in the world of opera.

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