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Oliver Knussen’s operatic adaptations of the late Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s books are a delight

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Part of the November Weekender – a family-oriented explosion of free artistic events in the building’s public spaces – the Barbican celebrates the work of leading British composer and conductor Oliver Knussen with a double bill of his two fantasy operas, Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop!

In these faithful stagings of two classic children’s books (written by the late Maurice Sendak), Knussen teams an innate sense of drama and psychological insight with designer-director Netia Jones’s specially commissioned multi-media stagings and the musical might of the Britten Sinfonia. The result is a delightfully thrilling journey into the imagination of Maurice Sendak that leaves one longing to be a child again.

Wild Things sees Max (soprano Claire Booth) voyage to a far off island in a paper boat, after his mother sends him to bed without dinner. Sendak’s illustrated Wild Things are projected onto a vast white backdrop behind the orchestra and percussively-voiced off-stage, leaving Max alone as a tiny silhouetted figure against a back-drop of rambunctiousness. Sendak’s creatures are so vivid they barely need to be animated in order to take on a life of their own, but thankfully the multi-media treatment stays true to the pen and ink line drawings and watching these creatures cavort wildly across the backdrop is a pure joy.

In Higglety Pigglety Pop! Jennie the dog (Lucy Schaufer in full Sealyham Terrier outfit) embarks on a quest to find ‘experience’ and answer the conundrum: ‘There must be more to life than having everything.’

En route, she meets a colourful array of characters (despite the black and white staging) including a sartorial cat, a baby-eating lion and a pig selling sandwiches. Here, we see Sendak asking some big questions of his young readers, some of which may have been lost due to the decision to only surtitle Wild Things.

There is a reason why, as adults, we still pick up these storybooks to read to our children decades after their conception; this isn’t just music for or about children. These operas teach us about the power of dreams and encourage us to confront our deepest fears – be they the perennial gremlins under the bed or the troubles that haunt us adults. A delight – and surprisingly thought-provoking.

* Where the Wild Things Are and Higglety Pigglety Pop! at the Barbican, Silk Street, EC2, on Saturday November 3.

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