Open Mike

Child’s play

Top photo by Mary Elizabeth

Bottom photo by Christopher Hayles

When brainstorming ideas for a children’s opera with composer James Humberstone in early 2007, Mary Elizabeth, AB’77 (who goes by “Emme”), wanted to invent a new character. Her concept: the “kiravanu”—accent on the third syllable. The kiravanu are spirits of natural places, like the Grand Canyon or Sydney’s Bondi Beach. Each child playing a kiravan chooses a place she would like to learn about.


Working with Humberstone—commissioned by Sydney’s MLC School to create an opera for grades K–6—Emme wrote Kiravanu’s libretto from her Vermont home. The story: two twins camping with their parents happen upon a meeting of the kiravanu, the council of elements (fire, earth, water, air, and wood), and the creatures (mammals, reptiles, insects, amphibians, and birds), all troubled by the state of the natural world. With the twins’ help, the group vows to work together to save the world.

After more than a year of collaboration, planning, and rehearsals, Emme attended the September premiere at the Sydney Showground Amphitheatre. She hopes to bring the opera to the States.—R.E.K.

All the world’s a stage: [The amphitheater] is actually open air. There were bats outside; there were birds flying through on occasion. To me, it was a great setting.

Not your average holiday: Most people go on vacation, and they really hope the weather’s good, and they hope it isn’t too crowded, and that they’ll get to do all the things they wanted to do, and that they’ll have really good memories, and nobody will get sick. I came out here [to Sydney], and there are hundreds and hundreds of people all involved in taking an idea that James and I had—I was working in Vermont with virtual words and virtual paper—and here it is, real, with more than 100 parent volunteers, all the teachers, all the students, all focused on bringing this to life.

Photo: Mary Elizabeth (left) with composer James Humberstone Mary Elizabeth (left) with composer James Humberstone

Uncommon collaboration: In a lot of operas the librettist is dead, so the composer takes the words and does whatever. In this case, we had a living collaboration, and the story idea came from James, which I think is unusual.

Solutions within reach: Talking about all the problems of the world, like global warming, really presents a challenge to children because we tell them that things are awful, but we don’t give them a way to respond to it. And there is a way to respond, but the drama has to be about something that would not be too difficult for them to grasp, but at the same time, moving to adults.

Pen pals: As the opera spreads [to other schools], children will be able to share: the child from the U.S. who decides to be the kiravan of the Grand Canyon will be to share with the child from Sydney who was the kiravan of the Grand Canyon. … They’ll then have something to talk about in common that will help lead to children in global dialogue.