A song contest

with real


The Song Contest of the Birds and the Beasts

Welsh National Opera

Birmingham Hippodrome


WHEN the birds and the beasts go head to head the result is a joyous explosion of colour and music in the World Premiere of this collaboration between Welsh National Opera and Birmingham Hippodrome.

The curtain opens on a jungle set with creepers hanging from the tree canopy and stars peeping through. The Hippodrome is a big stage to fill but the 120 strong cast managed it magnificently growing in sound and confidence as the contest develops.

The story is told entirely in song in what is almost a Young Persons' Guide to Opera with more than 100 Birmingham primary school pupils singing their hearts out in animal and bird head dresses.

The Pines Special School and Chivenor from Castle Vale roared as the beasts, led by WNO baritone Owen Webb as the Lion while Hamilton Special School and Rookery from Handsworth preened as the the birds under their leader WNO mezzo soprano Kate Woolveridge as the Sea Eagle. Judging the contest were the Owls from Ex-Cathedra Junior Academy of Vocal Music, the sort of jungle Simon Cowells.

There is no messing with them as they tell the animals “we run the contest, we wrote the rule book, it's our competition, we will be the judge”.


Round one they decided had to be a song about a creature in danger with the beasts going for the Bonobo, a sort of chimpanzee with a clown face while the birds went for the budgerigar - in danger after it got stuck in a didgeridoo.

The beasts lodged an objection on the basis that budgies are not endangered, there are millions of them, but the owls turned them down.

Next was a song about a creature who lives in the snow - which brought a blizzard from the heavens. The beasts went for the snow leopard while the birds sang about the snowy owl. Snowy owl judged by owls? Is that crawling or what?  The beasts came up with an objection and the owls again rejected it.

It was beginning to look like stitch up. Aren't owls birds? See? I rest my case.

The birds had other advantages as well. They had bright feathery caps with beaks that were no more of an inconvenience than the peak of a baseball cap. The beasts though . . . that was another story. Have you ever tried to see what is going on with a pig's snout hanging down over your eyes or a rhinoceros tusk in the middle of your face? Even the snow leopard had to contend with a faceful of whiskers.

Finally comes the deciding song which the owls decided must be a creature beginning with Z. The beasts go for the zebra while the birds decide on the Zim-Zim bird which before you reach for Wikipedia, is just a made up name which generates another beast protest and another owl rejection. Is there a pattern emerging here or what?


After much twitting and twooing though the Owls come up with the final score and  it is  . . . a draw so everyone wins. You know those owls are not such bad old birds after all.

So with everyone a winner it  gives the birds, beasts and owls the chance to sing about the joys of singing and of working together - with the audience - song sheets at the ready - joining in.

Apart from the bright eyed infectious enthusiasm of the cast the contest also benefitted from the well rounded, melodic score from distinguished Welsh composer Mervyn Burtch which had everything from drama to humour and it produced a lively performance from the WNO Orchestra conducted by Ex-Cathedra's Jeffrey Skidmore - who wore a bright blue feather head dress for the occasion.

Complementing the wonderful score were Simon Rees's words which, to the credit of the performers, could be clearly heard and provided interest from beginning to end. 

Skilfully Directed by Karen Hayes it is a pity it was limited to one performance in the current WNO visit to the Hippodrome. This is one contest that deserves a rematch

Roger Clarke 




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