Opera for Young People and Families

A lot of fun and full of deliciously scary moments… The Stage

McNeff’s catalogue features several highly acclaimed works for young people


An opera based on the novel by Philip Pullman. Libretto by David Wood. Commissioned by the Unicorn Theatre. London premiere at the Royal Opera House Linbury Theatre in April 2004

clockwork2Clockwork tells a story about the very nature of how things work. Set in the fictional town of Glockenheim and centred round its great clock, the lazy apprentice Karl fails to complete his final test and makes a dangerous deal with a mysterious genius. Children are delighted as mechanical figures come to life and take on an almost human form… With a sparkling libretto by the distinguished children’s playwright, David Wood based on Philip Pullman’s precisely plotted book, the opera is a perfect introduction for all families.

Cast: sop, 2 mezzo, 2 ten, 2 bar, bass. Orchestra: Flute/picc, clarinet/B.clt, horn, harp, violin, cello , bass, percussion.  Duration: 90 minutes

Younger audiences will certainly be won over by the Unicorn Theatre’s beguiling new opera for children. Wood’s deft dialogue and McNeff’s bright, inventive score brought Pullman’s ornate imaginings to vivid life.  The Observer

Unicorn Theatre’s first specially commissioned opera for children is both a lot of fun and full of deliciously scary moments.  David Wood and Stephen McNeff have fashioned an intriguing and provocative minor masterpiece. Stephen McNeff’s Music is full of witty invention… The Stage

Serenely powerful… Calgary Herald

The Secret Garden

Opera based on the novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Libretto by Joan MacLeod. Premiered in Toronto in 1985 and in revised version in London in 2012 at Blackheath Concert Halls.

secretgarden2Orphan Mary Lennox finds herself far away from where she grew up in India at her unfriendly uncle’s remote house on the Yorkshire Moors. Lonely and friendless she discovers long hidden garden and through it discovers that life can take unexpected directions. The rebirth of the garden echoes Mary’s realisation that caring for others can bring satisfaction and joy to a wider world. This is a perfect opera for all generations to attend together.

Cast: 3 Sop, 2 Mezz, 2 Ten, 1 Ten/Bar/Bar, Bass Bar
Orchestra: Flute/picc, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/B.Clt, bassoon, horn, harp, percussion. Strings (min 4,4,2,2,1) Duration: 100 minutes

With composers as communicative as McNeff around, the future of music theatre looks as bight as the sunshine in his Secret Garden Christopher Webber Opera Magazine

…a well-received, first-rate performance that should ensure that The Secret Garden remains in the repertoire for decades to come. Richard Bonfield, The Calgary Herald

Stephen McNeff’s little miracle of a children’s opera, with subtle and never heavy-handed environmental message. The Times

Gentle Giant

One Act Opera based on the book by Michael Morpurgo with a libretto by Mike Kenny. Commissioned by he Royal Opera House Covent Garden and premiered therein 2006

gentlegiantThis delightful tale from Michael Morpugo’s book is a perfect first opera for children and schools. With a small cast and orchestra it is extremely portable, and while it is possible to stage it in the most sophisticated fashion the story can equally well work with the simplest means. Miranda is saved from the lake by the Giant. People think he’s scary, but she befriends him. In turn he saves her community from a terrible environmental tragedy. This opera can be accompanied by a school and community education package.

Stephen McNeff’s little miracle of a children’s opera, with subtle and never heavy-handed environmental message. The Times

Cast: Sop, Mezz, Ten, Bar, soli (optional puppeteer). Orchestra: Flute/picc, cello, harp, percussion, keyboard (can be played by the conductor). Duration: 60 minutes

I would recommend this opera for children who are interested in music and in seeing new things. The music was interesting. I enjoyed going to the opera! Stephen (aged 11 on Bachtrack.com)
The family audience clearly enjoyed the production very much, as I enjoyed the music, the singing and the puppet giant. Penny Francis Animations Online

Winner of the British Composer Award for Best stage work 2007

Tarka the Otter

A community opera based on Henry Williamson’s story of wildlife on the Devon Moors. Libretto by Richard Williams. Commissioned by the Two Moors Festival and premiered in October 2006

tarkaHenry Williamson’s book recounts the tale of Tarka, the otter born free on the wild moors of Devonshire, living by his instinct and wits to capture his prey and outwit his hunters. Observed by the soldier recently returned from the trenches, Tarka’s life in the wild is noble. “Animals only kill for food…” says the soldier. Alongside this elemental tale is the beauty of the turning year, the seasons, the birds and other animals and their interaction with the sometimes rather bungling humans. With parts ranging from fully professional to children and non-professional soloists there is also an important choral element. It’s an opera for the whole community to become involved in.

Stephen McNeff’s Tarka the Otter is a really clever piece: unsentimental, sharp and not a bar too long.

Cast: Professional: Mezzo, Ten, Bar, Bass Bar. Non-professional: 2 sop, Ten/Bar. Many and various other small parts requiring a mixture of speaking and singing, both adults and children. Chorus and children’s chorus. Orchestra: Flute/picc, oboe/cor anglais, , 2 clarinets (1 doubling bass clarinet), bassoon, horn, trumpet, trombone, harp, percussion, string quintet. Duration: 86 minutes

McNeff supplies simple (but not banal) tunes for the amateurs, highly-charged lines for principals, and a real corker of a score for the 15 instrumentalists — spitting with venomous energy in the hunts or dissipating into impressionistic ripples to evoke the sparkling Torridge. Perhaps inevitably there are echoes of Janácek’s Vixen and, in the sardonic numbers, Kurt Weill. But the overall feel is of feisty originality. Richard Morrison, The Times

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