Soprano Lucy Knight performs in Musical Rumpus's Opera for Babies - Fogonogo.

Baby opera was humanity’s first art form.

For all sorts of reasons opera – even comic opera – is usually no laughing matter.

Tom Sutcliffe, Believing in Opera, 1997

Ask any professional musician the secret of good music and they will tell you that above all else, music is about emotion. This perhaps particularly true of opera, where the main instrument is the human voice and the main topic the human condition. Through music and drama, story and spectacle, opera aims to explore the highs and lows of life. Anger, joy, love, grief, jealousy and despair are all portrayed in exuberant spectacle. Richard Mantle, director of Opera North, calls it ‘the art form that comes closest to expressing pure emotion’. Writer George Bernard Shaw said, ‘Opera is when a soprano and a tenor want to make love but are prevented from doing so by a baritone.’ Opera is deliberately intense and emotionally manipulative, although, as arts broadcaster Tom Sutcliffe observes, opera does not do comedy well. The pressure is too great and the stakes are too high.

Opera is technically, logistically and economically forbidding. Many fans of opera are unapologetic that it is the most extreme example of human art. Oliver Mears, director of opera at the Royal Opera in London thinks that ‘opera is important because it is totally unfeasible’. He adds that ‘in scale and cost it is the most excessive of all art forms, and in the totality of its artistic claims, is the most ambitious’. It is surprising then to learn not only that people make opera for babies, but that baby opera might have been the birth of all human art.

Musical Rumpus have been making operas for audiences of babies since 2011. Supported by the Spitalfields Music charity, their shows have been seen by around 15,000 babies in east London and beyond. I knew about them, but for a long time I had no idea what was involved. When I stumbled into the world of baby music myself, I decided it was time to find out. I know nothing about opera, so I took along my friend Sam Wass who, prior to becoming a baby scientist, was an opera director in Berlin. The last time I had been to anything resembling opera was a school trip to see Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance when I was twelve. My two abiding memories were that yes, indeed, comic opera is no laughing matter and that despite it being incredibly loud, I fell asleep. Therefore, even though it was opera for babies, I felt a bit intimidated and was glad Sam was there for moral support and to poke me if l looked drowsy.

Sam and I joined the tiny audience for Musical Rumpus’s latest show, Fogonogo, an opera about a volcano. It was the eighth show the company have created and the seventh collaboration between composer Sam Glazer and writer and director Zoe Palmer. Just like grown-up opera, baby opera is a full multimedia experience, with set, staging, costumes and orchestra, albeit on a much smaller scale, as the budgets and the subsidies are as diminutive as the audience. The cast consists of just two singers – we saw a performance by Lucy Knight, a soprano, and Peter Braithwaite, a baritone. The orchestra on this occasion had two musicians: Sam Glazer played the cello, accompanied by Rosie Bergonzi, a percussionist. The venue was modest too, one panelled-off corner of the public library in Stratford, east London. Buggies were parked and babies and their carers all found places to sit. The audience was small in number – around 20 babies, although previous shows have had as many as 50 babies, and then it really is a rumpus.

Musical Rumpus perform Fogonogo, in Stratford, East London, 2017

The numbers are usually kept low because the shows are intimate and interactive. In the show we saw, babies were seated in circle around some blue mats representing the sea, with small orange platforms as islands. From the start the performers were down on the babies’ level, moving gently, and sensitive to their reactions. The babies are mostly content to sit and watch, but there are always several infant actors wandering into the performance and handing props to the performers. But even the babies content to stay sitting with mummy or daddy are not left out; the performers take care to connect with every little person in the audience. The babies are part of the show: Zoe calls them ‘our gurgling, wriggling, crawling, chorus’ and their responses are incorporated into the performance. It means no two shows are the same, and this can be quite daunting for classically trained musicians. Zoe told me about working on a baby show with jazz singers in New York. They ‘got it’ much faster, happy to improvise around their infant accompaniment.

Fogonogo starts slowly, but the intensity builds. This is a show about a volcano, after all. Sam Glazer is very conscious that baby opera should explore the full range of emotions. Over the hundreds of shows he has done, he has become more confident that the music should not be unrelentingly happy. It should be sad. It should be scary. The babies will respond. They will engage. As Andrea Bocelli says, ‘To sing opera, one needs two things: the voice and the passion – and above all, the passion.’ Peter and Lucy both get to show off the power of their voices and the music becomes increasingly dramatic, even slightly frightening at times. By my count they are singing in at least four different languages: English, French, Italian and Volcano. The babies lap it up. Many are active participants; others are quietly transfixed. Zoe tells me that, in her experience, tears are very rare. For all of them, the music provides the thread through the performance, holding their attention and inviting them into the action.

American writer Ellen Dissanayake believes that something not too different from Musical Rumpus could have been the origin of music, art and even love. She thinks music and other arts evolved in tandem with our need for intimacy and belonging. In a wonderful book entitled Art and Intimacy she provides a deeply humanistic perspective on the evolution of art and culture that puts mothers and babies centre stage. ‘It is not surprising that societies all over the world have developed these nodes of culture that we call ceremonies or rituals, which do for their members what mothers naturally do for their babies: engage their interest, involve them in a shared rhythmic pulse, and thereby instil feelings of closeness and communion.’ (Dissanayake, 2000).

Ellen Dissanayake sits in her Seattle, Wash., home Dec. 11, 2008 with a carved female figure (nokwi) from the Kwoma people of Middle Sepik River area of Papua New Guinea, that was used in a yam ceremony and then discarded, which she acquired in 1981. Dissanayake is an independent scholar and author whose work focuses on the anthropological exploration of art and culture.
Ellen Dissanayake with Kwoma carving. Photo by Ingrid Barrentine.

In an earlier book, Dissanayake had proposed the notion of Homo Aestheticus (Dissanayake, 1994). She thinks art makes us feel good and feel bigger than ourselves. Art aims ‘to recognise an extra-ordinary as opposed to an ordinary dimension to experience; to act deliberately in response to uncertainty’. It was counter-revolutionary idea. Rather than looking for explanations of art and aesthetics in psychology or philosophy, she considered its evolutionary benefit. With a background in ethology and 15 years living in Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Papua New Guinea, she felt she had escaped the narrow Eurocentric perspective of most art theorists, who take their meanings from contemporary European culture and its phases and fashions over the last few centuries. She thinks modern theorists’ obsession with the meaning of words blinds them to a deep history of 5 million years of social living and preliterate culture. As a result, she gets very angry with all the relativism of postmodernism and literary theory, which claims that art gets its power because it is a signifier of nothing beside itself. Dissanayake does not stand for this: ‘Nothing? Fire is hot. Hunger is bad. Babies are good.’

Art and Intimacy takes things further. It argues that the arts are not tools of sexual competition but expressions of empathy and community. The book was born out of a year Dissanayake spent in Edinburgh at Colwyn Trevarthen’s lab learning about the ‘primary intersubjectivity’ created as mothers synchronise with their babies. Dissanayake proposes that the arts extend this to larger groups. She dismisses the sex-obsessed perspective of most evolutionary psychologists, who, she notes, are mostly male. If music and art are tools of courtship, this is minor, secondary role. The main evolutionary value of art, music and story is as shared experience. And, just as a mother’s attunement with her infant is beneficial for the baby’s well-being, art is good for our psychological well-being.

In Dissanayake’s account, the origin of art is social, not symbolic. It is found in activity, not imagery. As a highly social species we have a capacity for mutual engagement and for kinship and belonging. Even before we had language, it is likely that we sought and shared meaning by other means, and this is art. The dynamic, interactive nature of music serves this purpose well. We would have been able to sing before we could speak. Dissanayake thinks mothers’ musical engagement with infants is much more than the ‘soporific bliss’ of lullabies. It captures, holds and sustains the infants’ attention and explores reciprocity and the full range of emotional states. Anxiety, fear and anger all have life-preserving functions. The songs of mothers provide infants with a real experience of these darker feelings, balancing them with joy, surprise and love.

The songs, ceremonies and rituals of our ancient ancestors created community. So David Pountney, former head of the Welsh National Opera is on to something when he says that ‘opera is the embodiment of an essential human instinct: telling stories through music. It links modern, liberal intellectual and artistic culture with our primitive ritualistic origins.’ And yet, amazingly, baby opera brings us even closer to that ancient truth. Just as the feigned tickle of a baby might have been humanity’s first ever joke, a mother’s emotional songs to her baby might have been our first artwork.

Extract from my book The Laughing Baby – a popular science book about the delights of being a baby.