Ulla’s Odyssey – Belgrade Theatre, Coventry

Composer: Anthony Young
Libretto: Leanna Brodie
Director: Valentina Ceschi
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight

OperaUpClose was founded in 2009 with the stated aim of making intimate and innovative opera. They have expanded to include an education and participation programme, of which Ulla’s Odyssey, aiming to introduce children as young as seven to opera, is a part.

Loosely based on Homer’s Odyssey, Ulla’s Odyssey follows 14-year-old Ulla as she attempts to become the youngest person to single-handedly circumnavigate the world – well, almost single-handed: she is accompanied by her cat Binnacle. Along the way, she meets with strange creatures and monsters and has to cope with the siren calls of family and friends in her head enticing her home.

As we enter the auditorium, the stage is awash with pale blue light with a small red paper boat highlighted. Most of the cast are on stage in friendly red overalls. Ulla herself, played by Sarah Minns, enters through the audience greeting the children and explaining that she is going sailing. She certainly looks the part in her HiVis lifejacket. As the lights dim, some apparently random pieces of wood are assembled to form the prow of Ulla’s yacht, The Homer, and the adventure begins – although it takes a little while to get going as we start with Ulla becalmed in the doldrums.

The other four cast members form a chorus and, with imaginative costume changes, play the various other parts as they arise. When Ulla realises the solution to the lack of wind is to ask for help from the Goddess of the Sea, Flora McIntosh puts on a silken coat with wonderfully full sleeves that ebb and flow like the waves she commands.

Edward Hughes is brilliantly eccentric as Cy-Ops, a robotic security and customs officer who challenges Ulla, trying to learn her identity and to confiscate Binnacle as contraband. He has a fine tenor voice that fills the room. Pamela Hay is rather unnerving, even scary, as Sylla. She also works with Oskar McCarthy to bring the puppet Binnacle to life.

Although this is a production intended for children, neither the music and libretto from Anthony Young and Leanna Brodie nor the staging make concessions to them. All singers have fine operatic voices and almost all the dialogue is sung. Ulla is a real character with strengths and flaws and for whom choices have consequences. She is, of course, resourceful and able to find convincing solutions to her problems and ultimately overcome then.

At 55 minutes, it is perhaps a touch long for the very youngest audience members. The stage and props are imaginatively used, but the prow of The Homer can make some of the scenes a little static. Nevertheless, once it gets into its stride, Ulla’s Odyssey is fast moving and engaging and a good introduction to opera for youngsters and the young at heart.

Runs until 30 March 2017 | Image: Christopher Tribble

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Engaging introduction to opera

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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