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An Operatic Message from Our Children: Save the Planet!
Sergio Monterisi, Cofounder, El Sistema Opéra Méditerranée
The challenges of climatic changes, the destiny of our planet, the possibility for new generations to take their future in their hands—these very big ideas inspired my colleague Magali Thomas and me to write a new opera for young people. Babel: An Initiatory Journey to Save the World was performed by 140 children on the stages of Nice Opera from June 21 to June 30.
The students, all from primary schools in Nice, France, were the protagonists of this extraordinary adventure, and they delivered a message of ecological commitment to the hundreds of their peers who attended the six shows.
Magali Thomas and I cofounded El Sistema Opéra Méditerranée in 2017. Our constant goal has been to provide access to music for children from underprivileged social backgrounds by integrating them into the direct practice of opera. Previous operas created by and for the program include Peter Pan, The Selfish Giant, and Circo!, which were produced in the southern French cities of Cannes, Draguignan, and Nice. The production of Babel marks the second time the children have been included in the Nice Opera season, thanks to the involvement of its General Director, Bertrand Rossi, whose innovations around traditional operatic repertoire include such experimental projects as Babel.
Babel is the story of children who realize the desperate situation of the climate crisis and decide to act in order to save the planet. Led by young activist Gaïa, and encouraged and advised by Magma, the Spirit of Earth (played by Magali), they travel to meet the geniuses of the four elements (earth, water, air, and fire), to appease them and restore the ancient harmony. This enables them to speak the ancient universal language—and the world is saved.
Preparing the opera was the work of an entire school year. The children worked with Magali, who served as librettist/director, to create their acting parts; I worked with them on their singing parts. They were supported and surrounded by a full professional staff: not only the technical teams of Nice Opera (sounds, lights, videos, machineries), but also five professional singers (among whom were Halidou Nombre and Raphaël Jardin) and an instrumental ensemble that included musicians of Nice Philharmonique Orchestra and students from regional conservatories.
The score calls for two pianos and six percussion instruments. As composer/conductor, I tried to create a multi-faceted musical experience that would fit with the contemporary subject of the opera, alternating lyrical arias with highly rhythmical passages.
The inclusive character of this project was strengthened by the presence of children with different disabilities among the 140 children involved. Every part of the rehearsal process was an opportunity for all the young people to work together and learn from one another. The children with disabilities learned how to express emotions in this setting, and the other children learned how to help, value, and enjoy those living with the challenges of disability.
The children were enthusiastic about the whole experience. “I love singing and acting with my friends!” said Enzo, age nine. “Opera is an incredible discovery! I have never loved to express myself in public; now I’ve gained confidence in myself,” said Maël, also nine. Stéphanie, age 10, put it this way: “With this opera, we sing strong to the adults that they have to stop damaging our planet and our future!”
Babel‘s production was enriched by the contribution of the world-famous photographer and director Yann Artus-Bertrand, who supports the environmental cause with such extraordinary movies as Home, Human, Legacy. He allowed the use of images from his movies, which became the virtual set of the opera (with editing and digital effects provided by Machina Films).
The beauty of Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s images, the depth of Magali’s libretto set to music, the energy and enthusiasm of the children of Babel—together, the production delivered a message of warning for the very near future of Earth, but also an immense song of love for the world. And the students felt inspired and empowered. In the words of 10-year-old Océane: “I learned that I had a hidden voice. Before, I basically didn’t like my voice, but as I sang in front of so many people, I discovered it, and it was marvelous!”