Vehicles is an educational science and opera project for children aged 6 - 12 years old.
Vehicles is the story of two astronauts embarking on a space journey but something goes horribly wrong. Join Captain Houston and Lieutenant Schmidt as they go on a time-travelling adventure through the history of transport.
On their operatic voyage, Captain Houston and Lieutenant Schmidt travel back in time and see cars, lorries, bikes, balloons and boats from their amazing spaceship. Performed by live singer / musicians on stage, viewers will experience how transport developed throughout history. Vehicles celebrates creativity and innovation in both music and engineering - as well as exploring the history of human transport.
Prof Martyn Harry has spent the last two years researching the themes of the opera and developing it suitably for this age group, focusing on STEAM outcomes.
How to engage with Vehicles
The Vehicles project is a STEAM Education project, bringing together
a specially composed opera which can be found in 6 parts on the Opera tab
A set of 5 STEAM Education animated schools resources exploring forces, gravity, friction and creative skills which can be found on the Resources tab
A Vehicles Classroom Scheme with a whole range of activities for the classroom which can be found on the Resources tab
AN INTRODUCTION TO 'VEHICLES' FROM PROFESSOR MARTYN HARRY
I am so thrilled to be able to welcome you to my children’s opera, VEHICLES, which has been filmed by the opera company, Operasonic, and comes to you supported by Oxford University’s humanities research hub, TORCH as part of the Humanities Cultural Programme. The opera is intended to be watched on its own, accompanied by five workshop videos exploring scientific topics, and three other videos I have recorded (also found on the episodes tab). However I thought I would take this opportunity to explain more about the project and how it came into being. I still recommend, though, that you watch the opera and the marvellous performances by our four incredible singers before reading about the project below by starting with my first video for before episode one.
THE VEHICLES FILM VERSION IN SIX EPISODES
VEHICLES is the filmed version of an opera originally created for stage performance to audiences of primary school children. It was originally due to be performed on a UK tour in 2020, but the tour had been abandoned after only one performance had taken place in Newport at the start of March. Operasonic’s director, Rhian Hutchings, and I came up with the idea of using the tour money to film the piece instead. What was originally a through-composed show was divided up into six episodes, each lasting between 8 and 11 minutes.
Although I hadn’t at any stage before March 2020 imagined that we might be creating a film, this version of the score is for me the definitive version of the opera. The original show was composed to be performed live by four singers, some of whom play instruments, but there were also passages where they performed to a pre-recorded backing track. Recording the film once meant that almost all of this pre-recorded music could be played by live instrumentalists, and so I was able to create some new instrumental parts for our wonderful music director and pianist, Yshani Perinpanayagam, cellist Rhian Porter and violinist Christiana Mavron that weren’t present in the original show.
If you have seen the opera already, you will know that its various scenes refer to various vehicles spelling out the history of transportation in reverse order – particularly formula one cars and a submarine in episode 2, a lorry and a bicycle in episode 3, a hot-air balloon in episode 4, a Roman Galley Ship in episode 5 all leading backwards in time to a moment when a caveman invents the wheel. Framing the opera are the events that take place on a spaceship from the start of episode 1 where an argument takes place between its two astronauts. It eventually crashes at the start of the final episode, before Leonardo da Vinci uses its various parts to create a time machine to propel the astronauts forward in time again back to the future that they came from.
In order to present this story, Rhian Hutchings and I decided to split the company of four singers into two halves – the two astronauts Captain Houston (Alice Privett) and Lieutenant Schmidt (Peter Martin) whose scenes contains most of the heartfelt moments of the show; and two other singers who we’ve chosen to call ‘engineers’. The engineers play different characters in different episodes – with baritone Oscar Castellino taking, among others, the comic roles of Mission Control in episode 2 and the Caveman in episode 5, and soprano Nia Coleman’s roles including a number of highly virtuosic roles – particularly Leonardo da Vinci in episode 5, the Wren Driver in episode 3 and the Hare and Tortoise scene in episode 2 where she gives voices and puppeteers both formula one motor cars.
A hidden theme of the opera is the incredible creativity of individuals who invent new forms of transport. We meet James Sadler, a maverick inventor figure, just as he is about to take his first flight in a hot-air balloon he designed, and the great artist, Leonardo da Vinci, who also designed war machines for his patrons and flying machines in his spare time. These ideas resonate strongly with other creative impulses in the show – such as the Caveman’s invention of the wheel and the moment when Lieutenant Schmidt works out how to turn the warp drive around.
The opera also celebrates the single-mindedness of individuals who may be outsider figures but are comfortable in their own skin – particularly the Wren Driver and the Tortoise, among them. In creating the show, we felt that these were things that primary school children could relate to strongly.
Although I wrote the libretto for the opera, my work with opera director, Rhian Hutchings, in the lead-up to the world premiere has had a really significant impact. In particular, it was Rhian that saw how VEHICLES actually contains important messages that address common prejudices about engineering. Her interest in STEAM methodologies (i.e., the interplay STEM subjects with artistic media such as music, storytelling, fine arts and theatre) led to a really exciting new approach to presenting the opera to primary school children.
In the lead-up to the world premiere in Newport, Operasonic conducted a number of workshops in primary schools to introduce the idea of opera and the themes underpinning VEHICLES. Right at the start of the workshop, they did a survey of the children’s attitudes to engineering and related subjects, asking questions such as: Did they find it exciting? Was it a creative thing to do? Could they imagine doing engineering as a career?
After this the children did a number of exploratory science- and theatre-based exercises, which drew on the narrative of the opera and also helped introduce what was due to happen in the performance. After the world premiere, Operasonic would then return to the schools for further workshops, concluding with a final survey to see whether there had been any change in the children’s appreciation of science and the creative opportunities afforded by engineering. This final stage was unfortunately disrupted by the COVID outbreak in March 2020, and it was at this point that we started to film the workshop videos that accompany the film episodes of the opera.
In releasing the six episodes of VEHICLES now on the TORCH website, we are still hoping to do research on whether an artistic project such as this has the capacity to change children’s attitudes to science. In the next few months, Operasonic will be carrying out a pilot project with a number of schools in Wales and Oxfordshire. As before, there will be early visit to the school before the children start watching the films, but now the opera will be watched in six different parts, interleaved with practical exercises that will help bring out its scientific content in a way that would not be possible in the middle of a live performance. A final site visit after the class has watched the opera will then show what impact the combined VEHICLES will have had.
GOING BACKWARDS FROM THIS ENDPOINT... (THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE VEHICLES PROJECT)
I was discussing new ideas for an opera with director, Nina Hajiyianni, of Action Transport Theatre in 2015 when the thought first came to me that an opera called VEHICLES might be exciting for primary school children. At that time we were hoping to do work both in Oxford and Ellesmere Port, where Action Transport Theatre was based. At first it was difficult to imagine two more different areas of the country than Oxford and Ellesmere Port, but I suddenly realised that both had famous car factories throughout the twentieth century: the famous car factory started by William Morris in Oxford Cowley that led to the development of the mini, and the Vauxhall car assembly part which had been a key part of the Wirral since 1962.
A bursary from Oxford University allowed us the opportunity to explore this idea with primary school children in Blackbird Leys and Ellesmere Port, and it was out of these workshops that the idea came that each scene of the opera should be based on a different vehicle type. Even now, you can see that the current shape of the opera has been influenced by these two physical locations. The balloon scene is set at Christ Church Meadow in Oxford, where the first English manned balloon flight did indeed take place in 1784, and the Roman galley ship in a later scene travels from Chester to Wales, past Ellesmere Port. (It is funny to think that the opera was also passed from Ellesmere Port to Wales, when the marvellous Rhian Hutchings of Operasonic took over the directing for the project).
Even the formula one scene takes place at Silverstone motor racing circuit, which falls in a straight line between the two original locations. This scene gave birth to “The Mini-Parts Orchestra” (BMW Cowley Plant, 2016) where a class of children from Banbury and I created amplified percussion music from the individual production parts of a Mini Cooper car.
Our next task was to find the right performers to develop opera further, and my idea was to work with amazing singers who could play instruments to an incredibly high standard – in this case, Simon Wallfisch (baritone and cello), Luci Briginshaw (soprano and piano) and Charmian Bedford (soprano and violin). The plot was developed sufficiently that we were able to share half the show in a performance in Ellesmere Port on 24 June 2016, which was literally the day after the result of the Brexit referendum was made known!
VEHICLES was then developed further in performances at the Jacqueline Du Pre Music Building, St Hilda’s College, in 2017 and 2019, with a wonderful new fourth performer, the tenor Peter Martin joining us in time for the official world premiere of the piece given by Operasonic at the Riverfront Theatre, Newport, Wales on 2nd March, 2020.
MORE ABOUT ME AND WHAT I DO
Here are a few words about whom I am and what I do. I am Professor of Composition here at Oxford’s Faculty of Music, and am proud to be affiliated with two colleges, St Anne’s and St Hilda’s, both of whom have supported this project in different ways. Most of my compositional work is for orchestras and ensembles, but I am particularly interested in theatre and so a lot of music blurs the boundary between abstract music and theatrical actions of various kinds. An instance of this is my piece, SIGNAL FAILURE, which has been performed in Germany, Holland and England and has a dialogue within it between purely musical and theatrical signals (including semaphore flags, football referee and conducting signals).
Just over twenty years ago, though, I was the composer in residence for the North Eastern region of the UK. I was incredibly lucky to get the opportunity to collaborate with children theatres in the region, especially Theatre Hullabaloo which is based in Darlington. After writing the music on a number of children’s theatre pieces, I was eventually commissioned to write a children’s opera for student performers at Durham University to take to primary schools across the North East of England including schools in Hartlepool, Redcar, Newcastle, Stockton-upon-Tees and other places in County Durham.
My seventh children’s opera, MY MOTHER TOLD ME NOT TO STARE, drew on all this experience of performing in schools, but was nevertheless intended to be played in theatres across the UK by professional singers and musicians. It was commissioned by two children’s theatre, Theatre Hullabaloo and Action Transport Theatre, and as an opera it was unusual in the way that it combined conventions from spoken children’s theatre as well as from musicals and operas. Every opera collaboration I have worked on has something distinctive and unusual about it, and this case it was the chance to set the words of the amazing children’s playwright, Fin Kruckemeyer, and to explore his dark imagination which appeals to children in the same way that the books of Roald Dahl do. Directed by Nina Hayijianni, MY MOTHER toured the UK twice in 2010 and 2012.
In many ways, VEHICLES was a follow-up to MY MOTHER. In both cases, the performers not only sing but play instruments and at times even use puppets to create the drama. Children will notice that even in the film version the singer who sings the role of Lieutenant Schmidt, Peter Martin, also plays the trumpet and the bass guitar in various scenes.
I do hope that you have enjoyed the opera, and found this introduction instructive. You are welcome to get in touch with any further questions via my email address email@example.com.