Letting sleeping dogs die

Laika takes an interest in Sputnik 2, the spacecraft that is to become her tomb Pictures: Bob Workman

Laika the Spacedog

English Touring Opera

Village Hall, South Kilworth, Leicestershire

 

HOW to entertain Primary School age children? How do you stir kids up to take an interest in opera, its staging and presentation? How can one get them fascinated by music itself? 

English Touring Opera's immensely talented, experienced Education department, led and inspired for many seasons by director Tim Yealland, who also directed their Fantastic Mr. Fox, has just had another good canine wheeze. Enter a very special dog. A dog which made history.  

Laika (the endearing name means ‘She who barks') was a three-year-old mongrel bitch found wandering around Gorky Park in Moscow, and spirited away to the Soviet cosmodrome at Baikonur, in Kazakhstan. There, after a series of tests, she was deemed fit enough to be sent into space on 3 November 1957 as the first living creature to rise above the earth's atmosphere. She paved the way for Yuri Gagarin and the first manned space flight. 

But she died, of overheating, about five to seven hours after the launch. And therein lies the added pathos, the special poignancy, of Laika the Spacedog, Yealland's delightfully conceived and vividly scripted production for schoolchildren, which I caught in a small village hall in the Leicestershire village of South Kilworth, packed with blue-jerseyed, wide-eyed Primary School pupils aged five to 10.  

Except that the show rather fudged Laika's death. It is anticipated vividly, as her overheated condition becomes precarious, but then merely alluded to in a rushed spoken epilogue (admittedly the capsule with her body did not return till five months later), as if such sad, fatal results needed to be minimised for the children.  

The show did not begin auspiciously. A potentially interesting touring set – was it made by children? – looked a bit too ramshackle; there was an ineffectual initial introduction from Birmingham Conservatoire-trained Abigail Kelly (throughout the show, certain proper names or technical terms – centrifuge? - needed glossing); although when Kelly started singing, her soprano voice proved delightful. Some pretty limp moves (in a constrained space) and the evident lack of absorption on the children's faces and in their unresponsive body language suggested the company was going to have to work to win respect; at times the children looked more disciplined than the show. 

Birmingham Conservatoire trained soprano Abigail Kelly as one of the technicians charged with preparing Laika for her fateful flight

Happily the small band (a really proficient unconducted quartet: saxophone-tinged clarinet, cello, percussion etc.) seized on the needed pace from the start, in a relatively minimalist, happily chugging score from composer Russell Hepplewhite; and the half dozen singers took their cue from them, so while the visuals struggle to catch up (latterly they did) the singing is terrific.  

Susan Moore, as the grumpy Soviet postman (splendid coat) and the scientist who thinks Laika just a scruffy vagrant mongrel (as she had been, having got lost) has a bewitching mezzo-soprano voice, and (here) witty, snarling delivery: her Russian pastiche accent, incredibly accurate, was a treat; she is clearly cut out for Verdi's Mistress Quickly or The Old Lady in Bernstein's Candide. Piotr Lempa, ETO's Polish member (though his cast double, baritone Maciek O'Shea, is of Polish parentage) has one of the most exciting bass voices of recent times; and is still very young.  

More than that, Lempa, like Moore, can act, at least in a pastiche way and up to a point; his strong-voiced, moody Soviet father was notably good; and later as (presumably Sergei Korolev), the Russians' head scientist, he really did grab the children: utterly the professional, but empathetic and kindly, as much concerned for the doomed dog (and he above all knew the chances) as with his own mission, imposed by an impatient and threatening Krushchev (Stuart Haycock).  

It was Haycock, a fine tenor, who actually turned the show round, as the young son, Mikhail Alexandrovitch (as we learn only later), beset by parental obstreperousness, who signs up for a junior job at the cosmodrome; and who recognises Laika as his family's own lost dog. The idea is ingenious, but might perhaps have been worked up before. Perhaps it was, but the earlier bits lost in the delivery. There was urgency, and a specific quality, to Haycock's singing and demeanour which suddenly earned the young audience's admiration. Crucially, he won their attention; from then on, they were far more gripped. 

A short recurrent ditty based on ‘Baikonur' and mimicked by the children was a definite hit. Another success was the cast's involvement of the school audience in quiz-type questions, on things scientific (speed of light, smallest planet, etc. –although the splendid conceit of dangling all the planets before them, comparing size, was poorly enacted).

 Some of the answers children had laid out for them on a small card distributed at the start. Perhaps that device could have been used much earlier in the show, for it worked a treat: everyone wanted to be the one with the answer.  

Laika, a dog sent into space with no intention that she would ever survive

The doggy herself, initially seen safe at home before getting lost, was devised by Simon Iorio, a puppeteer who manoeuvred a wooden Laika with wagging tail and moving head, demure, optimistic, cowed, angry, with – befitting her name - a series of rather realistic barks which Iorio contributed himself, all remarkably lifelike.

Yet even Laika's emergence looked a bit higgledy-piggledy at the outset, the movements not all well coordinated, and, with her on the ground, actually not visible to three fifths of the audience. But the problem receded, and his manipulation, and its capturing of the dog's personality and changing moods, was poignant and affecting. 

In such a closed-in setting, the music was sometimes too loud for the voices: important gobbets of text got clouded. But detail was fun: a hippety-hop clarinet for Laika in perky mood, whispers of soft cello and marimba, or the red flag awarded the dog for her service to the state, hauntingly picked out by clarinet over deep cello and percussion; and the miraculous, mesmerising sound of the theremin (a device consisting of two antennae and oscillators, its subtle manipulation by hand visible to the children, and artfully and adroitly controlled by Abigail Kelly).  

Nikita Krushchev (not the President, incidentally), like the USSR, Kazakhstan and other proper names being unexplained (though it's true there can be a fairy-tale magic about the sound of unknown people and places for young children) surely needed a more obvious outfit from designer Jude Munden to define him.  

One of the best lines (though they learned, for instance, that ‘a sputnik in space weighs nothing') is Korolov's: ‘Silence is silent? Nonsense! It is the noisiest thing in the world!': a profundity that might just lodge in some nine or ten year old boy's mind.    

Still, all the science in the world cannot save Laika, whose heartbeat accelerates at an alarming rate, very effectively shown on a vast array of dials, due to failings in the thermal control system. By the fourth orbit, she had died. That was that, but she was given hero status by an ecstatic Soviet public. And near the end, by a nice conceit Laika is brought together with a picture of Neil Armstrong: she has played her part in getting, just 12 years later, the first man onto the moon.    

There is an attractive addition to the Laika story. Before the launch, one of the scientists took Laika home to play with his children. ‘I wanted', says Prof. Vladimir Yazdovsky, ‘to do something nice for her: She had so little time left to live.'  

Is English Touring Opera's Laika the Spacedog a success, in text and in music? Yes, definitely. The idea was brilliant. But one did have the feeling the presentation could  have been a few notches better.

Roderic Dunnett

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