Three Bears, Four Notes

Hanover Hall, 65 Hanover St, Dunedin

08/03/2018 - 11/02/2018

Dunedin Fringe 2018

Production Details

A double bill of two short comic musical treats. Goldilocks a la Mozart retells the familiar tale with a modern twist, to well-known music by Mozart. In contrast, The Four Note Opera is a witty musical journey which lays bare the conventions of opera. How will four singers survive with no plot and only four notes?  Only the director knows…


Runtime 1 hr, 40 mins

Ticket price range $40, Students (door sales only) $20

Booking details

Theatre , Musical ,

1 hour, 40 minutes

Witty, ingenious, complex and finally moving

Review by Mike Crowl 09th Mar 2018

This double bill consists of the world premiere of Goldilocks à la Mozart by New Zealand composer William Green, and The Four Note Opera by Tom Johnson. It’s presented by the Little Box of Operas Company as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival.

Green’s retelling of the famous Goldilocks and the Three Bears stories has a witty libretto with a dash of puns, all of it set to mostly familiar music by Mozart. The opera sags a little when Goldilocks is required to go through the porridge eating and bed-checking process, since she’s on stage entirely by herself for some minutes. Caroline Birchall manages to sustain interest through this section, but must be relieved to see the Bear family returning from their walk.

Ben France-Hudson, Claire Barton and Sam Madden play the three bears with great enthusiasm, especially Madden as the energetic, pouting, self-centred Baby Bear. Having the audience on three sides of the stage causes some problems with sight lines, and when Mother and Father Bear go ‘upstairs,’ Mother is hidden behind her husband for a time.  

Reading the programme notes for The Four Note Opera, by American minimalist composer Tom Johnson, might make you feel you were about to go from delight to seriousness. In fact, this plotless take-off of the conventionally-assigned attributes of operatic sopranos, tenors, baritones and contraltos is very funny. You have to wonder if Johnson isn’t taking off his own minimalist style.

He strictly sticks to four actual notes for the singers throughout, although allows himself octave versions of them, and the piano accompaniment – played in both operas by David Birchall – also winds around variations of the same four notes. This could be tedious, you’d think; in fact it’s anything but and proves Johnson’s ingenuity as a composer.

The opera has the four singers ostensibly explaining and commenting on the various arias, duets, trios and choruses of some opera they’re due to perform. Except that the words of all these pieces are the explanations themselves: full of absurd repetitions, they work on the audience in such a way that it’s impossible not to laugh.

Only in the last chorus – in which for no good reason that the singers themselves can understand, the contralto stands still on a chair, the soprano sits on the floor with her hands stuck above her head, the tenor is bent right over on a table and the baritone sits still in a rocking chair – does the laughter eventually wear itself out, and the music and words become curiously moving – for no reason that’s easy to perceive.

The four singers in this piece make the complex music seem effortless. The baritone has a song, which we’re previously informed consists of 152 bars, where each bar has no more than one word or syllable in it. He has another piece where the piano plays irregular numbers of chords between each of his phrases, and, as he explains, it’s quite difficult to remember when to come in. But the singer, Scott Bezett, does it to perfection. At least we assume he does.

The contralto, Claire Barton, tells us in another song, an unaccompanied one, that she can do what she likes with the song, and can even insert her own words. “No one will know – except the other singers.”

Beth Goulstone plays the soprano, and sings her wide-ranging material with ease, even though in one song she’s being manhandled by the tenor – Sam Madden doing another crazy characterization – partly because of his upset that he only has one aria to himself. Or she’s criss-crossing the stage while repeating everything the contralto sings, or she’s fitting in ‘short words’ between the other ‘medium and long words’.

The four make a superb ensemble, and there is considerable detail in their performances. Plainly they’re enjoying it as much as we are, in spite of the complexities of the music.   

Nathaniel Otley makes a brief appearance as the Bass, lamenting the fact that he’s making a brief appearance as the Bass. And the fourth member of the Birchall family, James, acts for the most part as page-turner for his father. However, he has one brief line of recitative – most recitative is sung on one note – and makes a memorable appearance as the Player of the Wood Block. We’re warned in advance not to miss his performance, which is useful, because it consists of only one note. 


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