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So, how old aria? Minnesota Opera's newest work targets tots

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Ivory Doublette and Rebecca Blackwell adapt as a child climbs into a prop.
Performing in "Nooma" means thinking on your feet. Singers Ivory Doublette and Rebecca Blackwell adapt as a young man climbs into a prop boat with them during a run-through at the Ordway Center.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

The Minnesota Opera takes the expression "start 'em young" just about as far as it can this weekend with its latest production, "Nooma."

In fact, the target audience can barely stand.

But they can clap, and if a recent rehearsal is any indicator, "Nooma" may be a novel way to cultivate a coming generation of music lovers.

Singer Rebecca Blackwell engages with an audience member during "Nooma."
Singer Rebecca Blackwell engages with an audience member during "Nooma." The entire opera is designed to allow interaction between audience and performers.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Earlier this week, about 20 youngsters ranging in age from a few months to a few years plunked down on the edges of a square marked on the floor in an Ordway Center rehearsal studio.

The kids, and their attending adults, filled the room with energy as three performers walked around them, throwing tiny parachutes in the air.

Some of the young audience members jumped up to try to catch them. Some narrated the action. Others just watched. It was all OK. The performers smiled and played little games with the children. Then they began to sing.

There were a few props: a scarf or two, a sheet that transformed into a boat for the performers. In the finale, the adults in the audience rolled out a parachute and gently wafted it as the children danced below.

Saskia Lane is a co-composer of "Nooma."
Saskia Lane is the co-composer along with Emily Eagen and the Morning Star Ensemble of "Nooma," a new opera designed for audiences of children under the age of two years.
Millie Benson | Courtesy of Minnesota Opera

"Nooma" — a play on the ancient Greek word "pneuma" meaning both breath, and spirit or soul — is a long way from traditional opera. There are no rafter-shaking arias, or even large gestures.

But composer Saskia Lane and librettist Zoe Palmer saw a way to open opera's core beauty — sound and movement — to children.

Lane said "Nooma" was inspired by something a friend witnessed as he rode his bike past a park one day.

"He saw an outdoor class of adults with a parachute and these kids running underneath it and going wild," Lane recalled. "And he thought, 'That really looks like breath — the way the parachute goes up and down,' and this kind of sparked this idea."

While the performers are following a score, they take their cues from the audience, Lane added. "It's something where you have really to be light on your feet, and it's also just like pure joy for me to watch it."  

The climax of "Nooma" is a song sung under a parachute.
The climax of "Nooma" is a song sung under a parachute wafted above young audience members by their adults.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Developing "Nooma" has been a learning experience for everyone involved. But performing for up to 50 babies in a room is all about the interaction, said Palmer, "because we are working with the way that babies naturally move around and are curious at this age. We don't expect them to sit still."

The babies begin to pick up cues from the performers and from each other, she said, repeating sounds and mimicking each other.

"And it's really interesting when you can watch that ebb and flow with that number of babies in the room because we can't control what they do," she laughed.

She also recalled a show where the kids reacted by going completely quiet.

"There was this incredible silence," Palmer said. "And into that space, then a particular baby can offer a sound or offer something that the other babies can then notice and that their parents or adults can notice and that can become potentially funny and incorporated into the work."

Palmer says she is not keen on the term opera for babies, preferring opera for families.

"For the adults in the room, actually watching their babies enjoy or respond to or be curious about or step into the performing space can be really, really exciting," she said.

Jamie Andrews, the Minnesota Opera's chief learning officer, brought "Nooma" to Minnesota. He admitted to being skeptical about the idea of baby opera when he first heard about it.

Then, he experienced a show at the San Francisco Opera, and was so swept up in the excitement of the performance he returned to Minnesota a convert.

"Minnesota Opera likes to say we sing every story," he said. "And this is just a different story to sing in a different way."

Singers unfold a sheet which will become a boat as a child climbs onboard.
Singers Ivory Doublette, Sara Sawyer and Rebecca Blackwell unfold a sheet which will eventually become a boat in "Nooma," as an audience member climbs aboard.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

If you go

"NOOMA, an opera for babies," runs Friday and Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

The opera is co-commissioned with Carnegie Hall, the San Francisco and Minnesota Operas. It's being offered as part of this weekend's Flint Hills Family Festival in St Paul.

The Minnesota Opera plans to keep presenting "Nooma" in coming months in the Twin Cities and around the state.