When it comes to culture for children in Europe at this time of year, the question is: What on earth is there to take them to, apart from that perennial ballet ``The Nutcracker''? In Helsinki and Copenhagen, London and Lisbon, that favorite old chestnut is once again proving its evergreen Christmas-season appeal. But isn't there life after ``Nutcracker''?
The answer is yes, if you look around for it.
In Copenhagen, for example, the kids might well enjoy a play (at the Brondsalen) about the girl ``Momo'' and her fight with the small grey men. Or a delightful comedy about people and robbers in ``Kardemomme Town'' (at the Bellevue). Or even a Danish version of Dickens's ``Christmas Carol'' (at the Folketeatret).
In L"ubeck, West Germany, the inhabitants swear by their Advent-season ``Christmas Fair,'' where the arts and crafts appeal to all ages.
In London the choice is between dramatized versions of the ``Pied Piper,'' ``The Hobbit,'' ``The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,'' ``The Wind in the Willows,'' and ``Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat'' to name but a few.
n Roubaix, northern France, there is the Ballet du Nord in ``Copp'elia.''
In Glasgow, the Scottish Ballet in ``Cinderella.''
In Rome (the Italians favor less organized efforts for children, it seems) the best you can find are Punch and Judy shows in the Borghese Gardens.
In Cologne, the opera company is presenting Humperdinck's ``Hansel and Gretel'' and a few special performances of Mozart's ``The Magic Flute,'' shortened to 1 hours for children.
``The Magic Flute'' - now isn't that a likely contender for a seasonal children's classic?
I found it under another title in Stockholm. Here the excellent, small-budget, but brilliantly imaginative Folkoperan - housed now in an ex-cinema - is presenting ``Trollfl"ojten'' (Swedish for ``magic flute.'')
This company, under director Claes Fellbom, aims at non-operagoers, or those who wouldn't normally go to the Swedish capital's Royal Opera House. Swedes don't dress up to go to the Folkopera Company's productions, but they do go to it - in hordes. The result is that this company consistently achieves that rarity, the long-running opera. Where other companies dot their productions intermittently in repertoire, the Folkoperan (with changing casts and musicians) performs the same production five or six times a week for months on end. And always to full houses.
This Swedish ``Magic Flute'' is sheer delight from start to finish. Even before it starts, in fact, an upstart trio of ``birds,'' escaped from clutches of the bird-catcher Papageno, leap around the lobby as a foretaste of things to come, and then cheekily accompany the audience to their seats.
The stage - which turns out to be a great sweep of steel-mesh sheets from floor to rafters that open and shut in different places at appropriately magical moments - is festooned with tie-dye rags-and-tatters of every color.
A long, sinuous serpent - with which the hero Tamino will shortly be engaged in a dramatic struggle as the opera opens - coils its way down the center gangway and up onstage.
The mere 22-strong orchestra, effectively assisted by synthesizers, is placed half-visibly behind the mesh. At no point does this shoestring music sound at all inadequate or strained. Nor, on the other hand, does it drown out the singing.
I don't want to give the idea that the Folkoperan is merely a popularizer of opera. There was nothing missing in musicianship or in glorious voice.
Pia-Marie Nilsson as ``Queen of the Night'' sang with notable richness, and Katarina Pilotti, a little Nordic blond ``Pamina'' (in spite of the Italian-sounding name), delighted with a ringing, true voice perfect for Mozart's tripping, patterned melodies.
Overall, the production found a good balance between the humor and the seriousness of this enigmatic work. Its depths were never allowed to dominate, though they were not slighted. The basic theme of ``appearances can be deceptive when it comes to good versus evil'' was tellingly explored.
The good Sarastro presided over a grey bunch of followers - ranging from the stupid, via the pious, to the efficient - and ran (on high, behind the mesh) what looked like the controls of an old-fashioned electric power station. He himself had all the grandiose appearance of a cloaked 19th-century Scandinavian aristocrat. Nothing much hitherto suggests the Masonic or Egyptian mysteries that constitute the hidden meaning of the opera. Strangeness, perhaps, but plenty of uprightness. Sarastro's opposite number, the Queen of the Night, showed her true colors soon enough.
The visual interest, the costuming, the knockabout comedy, the fanciful use of surprising entrances and exits were always done with fresh imaginativeness, but again they didn't (as they shouldn't) overwhelm. Mozart still comes out as the star of the evening.
A delicious instance of this balance is in the irresistibly sung ``Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Papagena! ... Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Pa-Papageno!'' duet when the bird-catcher at last, after unwilling trials, in this case by electricity, finds his true love, equally feathery, equally a child of nature, all ready for him with a suggestively fruitful open-air picnic of grapes and melons. The comedy here is perfect, but the song is what you remember.
The Folkoperan specializes in opera for children, but it does this in the schools. Its regular productions, like this ``Magic Flute,'' are not aimed specifically at a child audience. But if you wanted to introduce an interested youngster to ``real'' opera, and without being patronized, then ``Trollfl"ojten'' could hardly be bettered. The pace is refreshingly energetic, the company is full of a youthful zest and enthusiasm shared by the audience.