University of Cambridge Museums

Projects, events and news from the University of Cambridge Museums

Shackleton’s Cat: A Polar Opera

Shackleton's Cat-1

Last February, out of the blue, the English Touring Opera contacted us about the possibility of staging a polar opera; my first thought was, I can’t sing! Once the panic had subsided we got talking. Their aim was to produce an opera for children based on the story of Mrs Chippy, the carpenter’s cat from Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.

We were intrigued. In March 2014, we set off to watch their travelling production of ‘Borka the Goose’. The production was absolutely brilliant, totally interactive, exciting and we were instantly hooked.

Meetings were arranged and three staff (Heather Lane, Keeper of Collections; Naomi Boneham, Archivist; Naomi Chapman, Education & Outreach) from The Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) went to London to meet the writer/director Tim Yealland and the project coordinator, Talia Lash. In unusually high temperatures we discussed the polar climate and conditions whilst watching chocolate biscuits melt on a plate in front of us.

Our enthusiasm was shared but our concerns were very different. The English Touring Opera wanted to keep the story pacy and child friendly; we wanted accuracy but our major concern was how they were intending to deal with the death of the cat. Back at SPRI, we had quickly coined the working title of ‘Shackleton shot my cat’ or to be even more precise ‘Shackleton ordered my cat to be shot’. In an opera based around the story of Mrs Chippy the cat, how were they going to address her sorry demise? There was much discussion. Tim and Talia wanted to use a puppet cat and tell the story in flashbacks. We settled on a group of modern day scientists taking core samples in the Antarctic as a possible way in. A cat bone would be found in an ice core sample and this would kick start the story. We were thrilled, modern science depicted in an opera, had this been done before? We even pushed for the correct scientific term ‘bathymetry’ to be used when the scientists were looking at images of the sea bed.

Shackleton's Cat-2

Over the next few months emails flew back and forth between the five of us. Heather and Naomi B checked the libretto for accuracy, Talia and I wrote text for the education pack.

On 5 March the opera launched in Kent to fantastic reviews. There now follows a gruelling tour of 29 venues ending here at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the end of May.

Last weekend, we travelled to the east coast to watch ‘Shackleton’s Cat’ with an audience of over 300 people at Snape Maltings. Before and after the performance we shared items from the handling collections with members of the audience. Lots of photos were taken of children togged up in our polar gear, we answered loads of frostbite related questions and generally had a great time! And the performance, well; a polar opera with bathymetry, five actors interacting with the audience, stunning music, ice core samples, a brilliant true story and a puppet cat, what’s not to like?

Shackleton's Cat-3

Shackleton’s Cat will be performed at the Scott Polar Research Institute on Friday 29 May at 2pm, Friday 30 May at 11.30am and 2pm. Book tickets online.

Naomi Chapman, Education & Outreach Officer at the Polar Museum

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