Bringing Alice to life through opera

24 June 2021
Queen of Hearts, Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and two young boys looking intrigued in Wonderland

As Welsh National Opera returns to live performances this month, with a production of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, we find out a bit more about the history of this family opera from composer Will Todd.

The show was originally commissioned by Opera Holland Park who wanted a family opera for their 2013 Season. Will started work on the composition in the summer of 2012, which led to a workshop of the piece with the cast and director where they explored what did and didn’t work. Will explains ‘Musical theatre is all about the timing of each scene. You need a character to come across in a certain way at a certain time (sometimes this can be down to a few seconds). You only understand if a scene works when you start rehearsing the music.’

From this initial workshop around 70% of music they started with survived, with the remaining 30% being either changed, removed or replaced. The final score that came from it is the one that went into production.

Will’s creative process started with the original books, he tells us ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a very well-known set of stories, broken down into a series of encounters that Alice has with different characters. Therefore, when adapting the story for the stage, the creative team and I felt we needed a strong narrative drama that takes the character from the start through to the end.  We decided to start the opera in a pet shop where Alice and family take refuge from rain. Alice starts talking to rabbit and soon realises that only she can hear him. This takes us from a realistic scene to a magical world where Alice’s family recedes from consciousness, and we follow Alice onto her Wonderland journey with the rabbit. Throughout the production we take the audience with Alice on her journey as she solves a problem and brings happiness to Wonderland. The final scene takes us back to the original pet shop location where we decide whether or not it was all a dream.’

When composing, Will was keen that Alice would have a song that was strong and made the audience love her and be with her on her journey as she stands up to the Queen and saves Wonderland. With I Flew High in my Dreams the theme is bright, positive and features at various points in the opera where Alice’s spirit is trying to shine through. 

The other characters also have music that represents their personality, including the contralto Cheshire cat with a perfect miaow that comes from the highest part of the male voice; a coloratura soprano singing bottle and a bass Caterpillar.

All in all, Will thoroughly enjoyed working on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – not only the composition but the collaboration with the librettist, director, producer, singers to make it the best possible piece that they could.