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Children's opera from scratch in three weeks

To the dismay of some parents whose children enjoy Scottish Opera For All summer schools more than the family holiday, the company is changing its style.

No more the week-long intensive rehearsal, finishing with a performance of an in-house operetta in Glasgow's Theatre Royal. Instead the company is devising a more child-centred fortnight and finale at the Tramway Theatre.

The extra week allows for the 100 middle and upper primary children on the performance arts course to create their own opera, based on a Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter theme. It may seem a gamble, but Rachael Swanwick, who masterminds the fortnight, has "absolute faith" that it will work.

For her, the value of arts work lies in invention as much as execution. "Creative art is in the individual imagination. It isn't maths; there isn't a right and a wrong way. Yet all those years in rehearsals we've been saying 'Do it like this'. We want them to be more creative, to create their own work and we'll give them the building blocks to do it."

The musical will need a setting, so new, too, this year is a three-week design course for 20 15-year-olds. This will provide the scenery and props for the show but it also gives roles to children who are too old for the performing course. They will be busy in the technical workshops of Scottish Opera, learning from the company's carpenters, designers and artists.

An opera needs music, of course, so also new this year is a two-week music for theatre course for 15 instrumentalists. They will be grounded in theatrical music before they set about devising the accompaniment for the performance.

The experienced team of drama director Eleanor Goodman and musicians Julian Evans and Karen McIver will manage their creativity.

It is not necessarily easy to work as animateurs with children. Ms McIver, who works with SOFA as composer, conductor and instrumentalist, reveals:

"It's taken me years to find a way of teaching composition to children with no formal musical skills. How do you approach music from a non-musician's point of view?

"My answer is a multi-storey car park. I give them an architectural plan, a bare, robust structure. That's all people need, because everyone is a decorator, everyone paints and papers their homes. They decorate the empty building, each floor differently, all at the same time. They can do anything they like and the building will support it."

Her "car park" is not a melody, because many people are tone-deaf, nor a beat, because many people have no innate sense of rhythm. Sometimes Ms McIver starts with what she says is the hardest thing of all: silence. "At its simplest, music is noise and no-noise.

"I might show the children pictures or objects, shapes, and get them to illustrate sounds visually.

"Melody, rhythm and harmony are everything in music, but you don't have to start with them to get to the taproot of a child's creativity."

Theatre design school, July 1-20; music for theatre and performing arts courses, July 8-20. Performances, July 19 and 20. Places are still available. Contact Scottish Opera For All, tel 0141 332 9559

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