'Noye's Fludde' at Fresno State: More sing-along pageant than opera

The Fresno BeeFebruary 5, 2014 

We might be facing a drought in Fresno, but it's been raining for 40 days and nights inside the Fresno State Concert Hall.

All that precipitation will come to a head this weekend with an innovative, kid-friendly production of the opera "Noye's Fludde." The great English composer Benjamin Britten wrote the piece in 1957, basing it on the text of a medieval play from the early 15th century recounting the biblical story of Noah. Even the title retains the Middle English flavor.

The fun thing about "Noye's Fludde" is that Britten stipulated that he wanted it to be performed more like a pageant than an opera — a work to be presented in churches, not theaters. The ideal cast, he felt, is a mix of professionals and amateurs. He wanted adults singing the leading roles and children as supporting characters, including middle-school-aged children playing Noah's sons and their wives, along with younger children portraying the animals that board the ark two by two.

And Britten wanted the congregation to be part of it all.

"The audience will be singing as part of the show itself," says Kim Morin, a Fresno State theater professor who is stage directing the production. "They'll actually learn a couple of choral pieces before the performance begins, and when it's time they'll all be asked to join in and sing. That's the spirit of this."

The project, a year in the planning, is the brainchild of Anna Hamre, conductor of the Fresno Community Chorus, which is producing the event. She saw a performance of "Noye's Fludde" 30 years ago at a church in Colorado and was enchanted.

"It's always been on my list," Hamre says. "It's really a unique piece of music. But there are so many elements to it."

Those elements include the leading singers themselves. Hamre recruited three well-known local performers — Terry Lewis as Noye, Kathy Blumer as Noye's Wife and Anthony Radford as the Voice of God — to anchor the production. Members of the Fresno Community Chorus portray the Gossips, a group of friends of Noye's Wife who distract her from boarding the ark, providing a light-hearted arc to the storyline.

Members of the Bach Children's Choir portray the animals.

Students in a puppetry class taught last semester by Morin made the colorful two-dimensional puppets used by the children. The class was inspired by the vivid collage-style artwork of children's book illustrator Eric Carle.

Morin opted for big, flat puppets so they could be seen from the audience. The class made 15 pairs, making a menagerie that includes lions, camels, pole cats, peacocks, foxes and goats.

A 14-piece orchestra accompanies the singers. The big rainstorm puts the percussion front and center. Interestingly, Britten wanted professionals and students to sit side by side in the orchestra as well, writing music of differing difficulty, but Hamre opted for using all advanced players for a more polished approach.

She's striving in all other regards to make the event feel like a pageant, however, with minimal sets and shepherd-looking headpieces worn with street clothes as costumes contributing to a neighborly, church-like feel.

The early English used by the singers might not always be easy to understand, but that doesn't really matter, Hamre says. If you know the basic story of Noah and the Flood, you can follow the storyline. At about an hour in length, it's great for children.

Face-painting and puppet-making activities will be offered after each performance, and the Fresno Chaffee Zoo is donating prizes.

For Morin, the production is a happy blend between what Britten wanted — the professional and the amateur, harkening back to a time in which churches were one of the few places to experience culture.

"It's kind of the feeling of 'Let's put on a show,' " she says.

Now if we could just get our hands on a day or two of that rain.

Opera preview

"Noye's Fludde," 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Fresno State Concert Hall. www.fresnocommunitychorus.org. $5.


The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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