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Adapting Our Little Inventor

Ahead of the opera’s world premiere, we spoke with the creative team who adapted children’s book Our Little Inventor - composer/co-librettist Emma Jayakumar and original author/co-librettist Sher Rill Ng.

Emma, why did you choose Sher Rill Ng’s book Our Little Inventor for this opera?

Emma Jayakumar: I loved how evocative Sher Rill’s illustrations were, they are very emotive and dramatic. I loved the story, the family themes, and the fact that Nell was a young Asian Australian lead character. It has wonderful protagonists and excellent forces of antagonism (villains!). It has all the perfect ingredients for a staged drama.

Sher Rill, how was the process of collaborating with West Australian Opera and Emma Jayakumar?

Sher Rill Ng: There were a lot of Zoom meetings. Melbourne was in and out of lockdowns, so my chats with Emma were very welcome. From the beginning, I knew Emma understood Nell and her story, her motivations. It was great fun being able to dig deeper into the nuances between the characters, and even to bring back some old ideas from the original picture book storyboard. Once Emma started composing, I was constantly in a state of awe as she sent me new updates.

When I was introduced to the WAO production team, I was struck by their enthusiasm for Nell’s story. It’s been a great privilege to watch their work from afar as they bring Our Little Inventor to life.

Emma, where did you find inspiration to write the music for Our Little Inventor?

EJ: Lots of places, but mainly from the illustrations of the book. There is a lot of machine music present in the book, which takes its lead from minimalism in composition (John Adams, Phillip Glass). Lots of woodblock, ticking clocks, bells, and chimes. Mum, Nell, and Mama’s music (the three generations in the family) is very warm and emotional, quite lush, melodic, and romantic in nature, and Nell in particular is more contemporary in style. They often sing around each other in a call and response fashion, they finish each other’s thoughts and sentences. Mrs. Livingston Li is inspired by characters like Miss Wordsworth from Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. She’s high and flighty and accompanied by high woodwinds. Mr. Mayor is accompanied by lots of brass and sings over everyone like the big bully he is.

Sher Rill, is Our Little Inventor inspired by someone or something in particular?

SRN: My sister was my main inspiration for Nell, so I gave Nell her intelligence and work ethic. She also had these big brown eyes as a kid (still has) which seemed very appropriate for our young protagonist.

Also, after coming across a headline stating that 'by age six, girls no longer believe they're as smart as boys'*, I was concerned by this and I also related very much to this feeling of inadequacy.

Making Nell a little girl who stands up to the people who don’t believe in her or tell her ’No’ was my way to encourage young readers (and myself) to try again when faced with an insurmountable obstacle.

Emma, how do you write an opera for families, differently from an opera for adults?

EJ: Well, the main differences are the themes and concepts the drama is based upon. The story, themes and characters must be ones that are grounded in a children’s psychological world. It’s about family, friends and growing up, whilst also maintaining a sense of the young people they are—ones who love to play and laugh. The main characters should reflect their world too, so there’ll be a main child character, as well as children and adults in the mix that represent their real world (like parents or teachers or older friends and siblings).

Duration is a little shorter and I particularly find mixing up the vocal styles for children really helps to scaffold their musical ear into the world of opera a little better, so I’ll have all kinds of voices in there, from true blue opera singers who can sing fabulously virtuosic music, hitting high notes with great volume, to characters who talk and sing in more contemporary or music theatre styles. It’s a bit less ‘scary’ for children this way, especially if they are uninitiated in the world of opera, as they often are!

Sher Rill, Is there a message that you would like young people, readers or audiences to take away from Our Little Inventor?

SRN: Originally, I had hoped Nell would inspire young people (in particular young girls) to be resilient, to not doubt their intelligence, and to be kind to the environment as well the people around them. That message still remains, but I also hope this production will inspire future musicians, artists and opera fanatics! Music was an important part of my life in school and I am so thrilled to see Nell on stage.

Emma, what do you think the children attending Our Little Inventor will learn from the story?

EJ: Dream big, and don’t be afraid to fight for what you believe in. Although not everyone will always be on your side, you’ll always find an ally in someone if you work hard and believe in yourself.

Our Little Inventor has its world premiere season at His Majesty’s Theatre from 1-2 October.

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Written by Rebecca Bencivenni