I began writing these operas four years ago. I say writing but to be accurate I should say 'curating', because the text of both operas is entirely verbatim. I have two small children, who since learning to speak, astound me on a daily basis with their stream of consciousness nonsense one minute and startling profundities the next. The poetry of the mundane is a thread running through all my operatic libretti, so I determined to capture these innocent phrases from one child (aged two and a half, at which stage they're verbal but still learning syntax so their sentence constructions are particularly interesting). I wanted to see whether these words could be woven into a coherent whole that gave at least some narrative satisfaction to an audience, so I grouped phrases into movements following the arc of a single day. The process and end result was fascinating, so I began that process again last year with a different child. Both children have markedly different personalities, so it felt right to commission two different composers to set the texts. What's interesting - although perhaps subconsciously my knowledge of their work conditioned these choices - is how well Oliver Brignall's intense and poignant setting echoes the serious and sensitive young child whose voice he's captured. Meanwhile Laura Bowler's freewheeling joyous riot of a score is uncannily reflective of the highly energetic and bonkers child whose words she has set. Perhaps the truth is that two such talented composers would always have responded sensitively to the original source material - and the words paint such clear pictures of these two idiosyncratic individuals.
As a society we don't always listen to our children. Yes, we've moved beyond the concept of children being 'seen and not heard', but I'm sure I'm not the only parent guilty of zoning out during a long explanation or cheekily checking my phone whilst they are trying to get my attention. This project was in part an attempt to redress this - to honour their words and their experiences, and to validate their 'big emotions' rather than trying to drown them out with cartoons or chocolate. Along with the poetry of the mundane, my other main preoccupation as an opera librettist is to illuminate the inner worlds of ordinary people. The operatic form so wonderfully elevates its subject matter both because the act requires such technical and physical virtuosity and because music is such a successful vehicle for the expression of human emotion. I hope we have succeeded in elevating the experience of these two small yet richly complex lives and opened a small window into the world of a toddler. As an audience member described the premiere of I'm not a bit like a clown in June 'it's a joyous trip down two year old lane.'