Few dogs make history. This one did. Laika was a female mongrel, found in Moscow’s Gorki Park, who in 1957 became the first living thing to be fired beyond the earth’s atmosphere. Her solo flight paved the way for the first men in space. She helped to put a man on the moon.
But there was a hitch: Laika died hours into the flight, having overheated. But, even so, she made it into orbit and became a Soviet hero – and this is how grieving Russian children remembered her.
ETO’s intention with this powerful new opera is not to make schoolkids cry, but to fascinate and excite them at the scientific ingenuity, research, vision and determination that led man to conquer the beyond.
By telling the story of Laika – and the dog herself (‘Barker’) has a big role in the production, thanks to puppeteer Simon Iorio – the ETO’s writer and director Tim Yealland has conjured up a world of wonderment, where dials whirr, rockets roar and frontline technology challenges. This heady concoction was launched at London’s Science Museum in January: an inspired decision.
The production works on many levels, though some of the performers’ delivery is variable, and the set (by Jude Munden, a Cornish ETO regular), which looks wonderful in photos, is actually a bit ramshackle. Still, the piece is not designed to be realistic, but to be mind-engaging and thought-provoking, and this was certainly the case for much of the primary school audience, all aged between 5 and 11, at the performance I attended.
The music, by Russell Hepplewhite, who has already delighted ETO audiences with his children’s opera The Feathered Ogre, chugged along in cheerful minimalist vein, served up by an excellent quartet, including percussion. It did not dominate; nor overwhelmingly engage; it was musical wallpaper, but it served the show well. But at Laika’s death, the use of clarinet over low string and deep percussion was gripping; and a passage for marimba and held cello still haunts the mind.
One splendid idea is to give Laika a pedigree. Thus when we first meet Iorio’s yapping mongrel, a mobile wooden puppet who touches hearts, she is at home in Russia’s countryside; but runs off and gets lost. The family’s son sets off to begin a job at Kazakhstan’s Baikonur cosmodrome, heart of Russian space experiments. When Laika appears, they recognise each other.
The performances were a delight, with everyone understanding how to engage a young audience, if occasionally missing a trick. Polish-born Piotr Lempa, a bass of stupendous power and authority, made a splendid difficult provincial father (‘Who cares about space…Rockets, science, a waste of time’); then interacted commandingly with his Mensa-level ‘team’, as chief scientist. Getting the children to sing a ‘Baikonur song’ was a stroke of genius; possibly Laika needed more moments like this. Susan Moore, a magnificent mezzo, donned a Russian accent and a grumpy Communist-era demeanour for the postman and cosmodrome deputy: encapsulating the kind of po-faced officialdom often encountered in Soviet days. And what a wonderful voice she has: a mezzo of Verdian dimensions.
Abigail Kelly, the vocal quartet’s soprano, created awed amazement in her audience by her skilful manipulation of the theremin, by means of beguiling hand movements. Tenor Stuart Haycock also excelled – and the young watchers visibly identified with him – as the lad who heads for the Kazakh wilderness to assist the great man. The games with dials and dangling planets, plus the question and answer sessions which further involved the audience, worked incredibly well.
Gradually Laika’s role becomes more passive, and Iorio’s terrific characterisation – wagging tail, friendly optimism, questioning bark, clutching paws, musing head – becomes more demure and cowed as her simulation chamber reduces to the size of the capsule. We see her, strapped in and trapped, and are helpless to save her.
Could more of the geographical or scientific terms have been glossed in the text? Maybe. But profundities arguably made up for this. My favourite remains the retort of Sergei Korolev (Baikonur’s chief and later mastermind of Yuri Gagarin’s flight): ‘Silence is silent? Nonsense! It’s the noisiest thing in the world.’ A direct quote, or a brilliant coinage by ETO? Food then not just for little minds, but big minds too.