Fandom of the Opera

Makey Makeys have made a big impression in Scotland, thanks to Scottish Opera’s crack team of composers, technicians and sound engineers, whose efforts to make child-friendly interactive music involve ‘brains’, a floorcloth, fruit pianos, and Magic Squares...

The Education Department at Scottish Opera has a history of producing captivating critically acclaimed productions. But when tasked with creating a short touring opera aimed at 3-4 year olds, composer Katy Lavinia Cooper and writer/director Lu Kemp had their work cut out for them.

The result was KidO -- an innovative, interactive show, billed as:

A neat and tidy man who likes everything in its place meets a nesting magpie who brings chaos in her wake. Can these two ever learn to live together? It looks unlikely, until a friend scoots in to help the pair live in perfect harmony.

Several local industry pros were enlisted to help bring the idea of life. Audio Technology Developer, Neil McDermott, was put in charge of creative sound design and with making the interactive elements work together.

A Sonic Arts tutor at Glasgow University, Neil began workshopping a fruit piano using Makey Makeys for the performance. However, the tech used in rehearsals quickly became a central part of the child-friendly set.

“The Makey Makey was identified early on as an engagingly simple but effective way of adding interactivity,” says Neil. “It always worked well during development so we never really strayed from that.”

A good few months in the making, between October 2014 and March 2015 the KidO team visited pre-school nurseries around Glasgow, experimenting with different ways to make the cast and audience provide conductivity to the Makey Makeys.

“We tried aluminium foil hats and ropes at one stage!” says Neil. “In the end we came up with the idea of a floorcloth with ‘Magic Squares’ sewn into them -- material panels made out of conductive fabric that sit beneath each audience member’s feet.”

The Magic Squares connect via circuits sewn with conductive thread to the ‘KidO Brain’ -- a device comprised of three Makey Makeys, a USB hub, and a 40-way ribbon cable; held in place with mouldable glue inside a wooden box.

“Each pad plays different sounds when the cast interact with the audience,” explains Neil. “Things get more involved when switching the sounds triggered by each Magic Square. When the underlying score is playing, the triggered sound is always in tune, regardless of which Magic Square is triggered. We do this by intelligently switching the sounds in-sync with the score.”

The floorcloth and the brain were both developed especially for KidO, but now that the proof of concept is there (and various technical bugs have been ironed out) Scottish Opera plans to use it for more productions.

“It's interesting during the show watching the parents trying to work out how it's done! And the kids love it of course, and the cast really have had fun with it too… and that's what theatre is all about!”

The show has toured major Scottish cities, including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, and Inverness, as well as lots of smaller Scottish towns like Clydebank, Lochgelly, Musselburgh -- and even the remote Shetland Isles. Once the second Scottish tour is over, the show will be licensed to overseas markets.

Anyone interested in bringing KidO to their area should contact Donna Macpherson Donna.Macpherson@scottishopera.org.uk

See an excerpt from the performance