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Big Hamish says eat well and recycle

Brian Hayward reviews an opera for nursery pupils

Most teachers, at some time in their careers, have had the feeling that by the time their students come to them it is too late, the damage has been done.

Arts educationists are among those who feel this most keenly, and often find themselves starting with re-education, that it is actually quite all right to sing in your speaking voice, that boys can dance and it is perfectly possible for music to have more, or less, than four beats in a bar.

So, gratitude to Scottish Opera Education (SOFA before the company rebranding) for coming up with Big Hairy Hamish - The Monster Who Cared as its new opera for the under-5s.

Such a venture depends on partnerships, first with the local authorities - in this case in Shetland, Aberdeen, East Ayrshire and East Dunbartonshire, West Lothian, Glasgow and Edinburgh, which have each bought the show for a week or fortnight and invited their nursery groups - then with the nursery teachers themselves, whose help in preparing the children for the performance is essential.

As Jane Davidson, the long-serving head of this most senior European opera education unit, explains: "The more they put in to it, the more they get out."

Scottish Opera Education, for its part, has made a huge input. First, for the teachers, there is the superbly produced resource pack, starting with a very professional looking storybook.

The story, written by Iain Piercy, is the prequel or prologue to the opera.

Teachers are urged to let the children become very familiar with the story and the illustrations, so that when they meet the same characters and scenery on stage, the joy of recognition will make for a seamless acceptance of the genre.

Participation is important in the mini-opera, not merely to intensify the involvement or orchestrate the fidgets but simply to let the children sing and share the music with the performers.

At the performance in the company's technical centre, the children fairly stormed in on their cue, obviously well prepared by their teachers, who had made good use of the composer's teaching CD and possibly too the sheet music in the resource pack.

The composer is Alan Penman and the lyricist (and director) is Allan Dunn.

Theirs is a successful partnership with a long history at Scottish Opera - so long, in fact, that Ms Davidson merely tells them the educational goals she is aiming for and leaves them to it.

Good diet, healthy lifestyle and recycling are her three themes this year and they have obliged with the story of Mairi who, with the help of Hamish, an ingenious recycler of other people's rubbish, manages to change the fatties of Slobbytown (where in the clothes shop "each item was made for the Slobbytown figure and it came in two sizes: big and much bigger") into the trim and athletic people of litter-free Sunnytown.

Mr Penman hits the mark with a musical score that is immediate and extremely singable but at the same time moves naturally and easily through a range of musical styles, tempi and rhythms, several of which the children enjoy sharing. He is a master of mood swings, getting the children on their feet, enthusiastically stamping, waving and shouting to the "Hairy Monster Stomp" only moments after stilling the 50 youngsters almost to tears with a melancholic lament over the supposedly dead Hamish.

Musical education is never far away. The chef of the very greasy spoon is sung by Alastair G. Bruce, an experienced performer with a fine flair for comedy, who finds time to indicate the musical possibilities of banging on a set of saucepans or even syncopating with a couple of sticks.

Lisa Jane gives the role of Mairi all the fresh-faced honesty a heroine should have, and Steven Struthers doubles the role of Nerdy Norman, purveyor of short-lived gizmos, with the Hairy Monster itself, whom costumier Trish Kenny has wrapped in luxuriant green fur and tipped with redundant black claws.

Natalie Toyne, from South Africa, is a very lively Slobby Jo, but makes as large a contribution animating the endearing puppets: the woolly dog who lives in the skip and Captain (Red) Squirrel.

As always, the children respond to the animals with that spontaneous rush of affection and delight that they reserve for anything with fur.

Most important of all, all four in the cast sing in a natural voice, putting aside all their concert hall and opera house skills to communicate simply and musically with the pupils. Their singing is every bit as natural as bird song, the organic food and fresh water they urge us to enjoy. Hairy Hamish - The Monster Who Cared tour continues to Aberdeen, Shetland and Edinburgh in September and October.

Details from Catriona Hutchinson, tel 0141 242 0563

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