"A hallmark of our program is that we don't do kiddie music."
Conductor Matthew Abernathy's comment about Minnesota Opera's children's program, Project Opera, certainly rang true in Saturday afternoon's performance of Scottish composer Lewis Murphy's "Belongings."
Murphy's opera premiered at Glyndebourne Opera in England three years ago, and was written specifically for young people to perform there. It is, however, anything but oversimplified in either its technical demands or its subject matter.
"Belongings" tackles the difficult subject of enforced migration, juxtaposing the experiences of children evacuated from the Blitz in World War II London with the plight of contemporary migrant children in a refugee camp.
Homesickness, boredom and disorientation are common to both groups, expressed in a series of vocal vignettes by individual characters. Murphy through-composed "Belongings" in a single sweep of 60 minutes, with no pauses for applause and no set-piece songs or arias to give the singers their bearings.
That put an extra burden of concentration on the young performers of Project Opera, who range in age from 9 to 18. Locking carefully into Abernathy's beat — he led the performance from an aisle in the audience area of the Lab Theater — they admirably navigated some tricky passages.
There were strong choral contributions, too, as the ensembles of evacuees and refugees voiced their fears and aspirations.
Brightly scored for an ensemble of flute, clarinet, percussion, strings and piano, Murphy's music was tunefully accessible but never facile. He cleverly wove a patriotic march tune into his music for the English children, while jerky syncopations signaled a shift to the present when the refugee group came into focus.
Samantha Haddow's costumes unfussily contrasted a sepia-tinted 1940s England with modern teenage stylings, while Moon Jung Kim's set was dominated by two frame-like structures built of tree trunks, within which each group congregated.
Director Mitra Sadeghpour had more than 50 singers to move around the stage, and her clever blocking elicited a confident response from the young performers.
"Belongings" draws some interesting parallels between past and present without quite making a convincing case that the comparison is relevant. The relative comfort of the English countryside, even in wartime, is a far cry from the stateless privations of a modern-day refugee camp.
And while the conclusion of the opera seems draped in hope, it isn't exactly clear where hope has come from — the modern refugees have some way still to go on their journey, and ahead lies possible danger.
These are, perhaps, academic considerations. Overall, Murphy and librettist Laura Attridge have produced a quality work for young singers both to enjoy and be challenged by.
Project Opera's performance Saturday was the U.S. premiere of the piece, which has a short run concluding Thursday evening at the Lab. The composer himself had been rehearsing the singers all week and was present in the audience. He looked delighted at his curtain call, as well he might be.
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic for the Star Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.