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Angels? A piece of cake

A touring operatic production of Hansel and Gretel is proving a truly heavenly experience for the many schoolchildren taking part, reports Brian Hayward

In the first ever link-up between Scottish Opera for All and Opera Go Round, hundreds of upper-primary schoolchildren are getting the chance to take part in Hansel and Gretel, now touring round Scotland.

Humperdinck's opera needs a choir of angels and gingerbread children, and the happy solution is to recruit them from a primary school adjacent to the venue.

The scheme has been a year or two in the hatching, but the confidence born out of SOFA's work in primary schools finally made the idea irresistible.

A score of primary schools are involved, singing in such places as the cinema at Newton Stewart, the modest village hall in Lochcarron, with its capacity of 70, and larger venues, like Elgin Town Hall or the Gaiety Theatre in Ayr, where the Opera Go Round tour began.

The company sends tapes of the choruses to the schools in advance, though at Forehill Primary in Ayr, the ebullient music teacher Marlyn Cairns was able to disdain such crutches when coaching her delicately-balanced 14 sopranos and altos.

All the schools were chosen on the strength of their relationship with SOFA. Forehill seniors have an annual visit - "and will as long as we can afford it", headteacher Sheena Templeton avers.

"It's such a boost for the children's confidence. After actually being in an opera, with the costumes and the music, they see the arts in such a different light. It's a big event in P7 - they start looing forward to it in P4."

She is obviously proud of the way the children coped with Hansel and Gretel, and delighted that South Ayrshire's director of education, Mike McCabe, wrote personally to each of the children to express his congratulations.

After a few weeks to learn the music, the Forehill chorus came to Scottish Opera's home in Elmbank Crescent to learn the stage work. In the rehearsal room, Debra Stuart worked briskly and cheerfully on a "need to know" basis, walking them through the movement, explaining stage left and right, and "wings". She drip-fed expressiveness on the second and third practices:

"You're angels. Think like angels."

Sprinkling petals on the imaginary sleeping couple needed a little coaching, but being frozen, tortured gingerbread children was a piece of cake.

All the time, Debra Stuart bounced around the rehearsal room, guiding, mouthing and encouraging, when necessary carolling away in the principal roles with rather more panache than I thought was necessary until I discovered she also understudies Hansel.

She got them to listen for cues in the piano score played by her partner, the genial Roger Glass, rattling out the fortissimo on the Yamaha grand in more decibels than I could make on one of their motorbikes. "You hear that trill?" she asks the angels, and she sings it. "That's your wake-up call, your clock's gone off in heaven."

Truly, that's where some of them thought they were.

Scottish Opera Go Round Hansel and Gretel tours until November 4. Contact Maureen Dalton 0141 248 4567 ext 217

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