When best friends Jack and Megan explore the Pontigorffennol’s old boarded-up music hall, a tumble into a time-travelling trunk takes them far away in time and space to the very beginnings of opera. Jack and Megan go with a huff and a puff and land with a bump and bash at the Academy of Barmy Composers in Italy in 1597!
The story leaves you breathless as Jack and Megan experience a whistle-stop tour of opera in the Baroque period. They meet the inventor of opera Jacopo Peri and Claduio Giovanni Antonio Monteverdi, who made opera popular as well as the first female opera composer, Francesca Caccini, nicknamed the Songbird. Not surprisingly, Jack and Megan meet Georg Friedrich Handel and the English greats of Doctor John Blow and Henry Purcell. In addition Jack and Megan have to stand up to the bully Oliver Cromwell, Lord Protector of the Commonwealth, hoping that opera might survive his puritanic rule. With numerous asides and humourous interruptions there is plenty to entertain younger readers.
The language of the book is however delightful. With emphasis made through the use of different fonts, font sizes and colours, individual words are literally lifted off the page. This includes onomatopoeia words, technical language and foreign languages, for example French, German and Italian. Mark Llewlyn Evans really brings the European languages of opera to life, using the words to add drama and interest to the text. It is therefore a great read aloud book with verve, vim and vigour.
Moreover Karl Davis’ illustrations are bright and lively, often conveying a sense of movement. His illustrations include whole double-spreads with the text printed on top to smaller illustrations, often depicting the characters in the text. I particularly liked the illustration of Francesca Cacinni brilliantly capturing her ability to sing, dance and play the lute and guitar in one image.
The amount of information in the book is astounding. It is only when I read through the addendum of short chapters at the end did I appreciate the amount of information I had absorbed. Without spoiling it for the reader, I had no idea how ‘Luckless’ Jean-Baptise Lully had died! In the addendum there is information about the Baroque period, the instruments, voice types, composers (the 7 featured in the story and a further 15 short biographies of other composers), Q&A about operas, and the plot line of Orpheus, the subject of many operas, including operas composed by Peri and Monteverdi. Told in an irreverent and humourous way this information is accessible and entertaining to read.
Mark Llewlyn Evans and Karl Davies do not simply introduce you to baroque opera in the ABC of Opera, they create an immersive experience shared with energy and enthusiasm. There is even a QR code in the front cover allowing readers to hear the songs included in the book.
As suggested by the title, this book is the first in a series with further titles expected on Classical, Romantic and Modern opera, principally supporting the KS2 curriculum. Jack and Megan’s mission to save opera from the Forgotten Land will continue.