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Next week, citizens of England's second city will perform Fidelio in a Big Top. Heather Neill reports.

Birmingham Opera Company Fidelio, six performances on alternate days from March 6 There was a moment during a Thursday evening rehearsal of Fidelio a couple of weeks ago when the world seemed to stand still. We were a motley group, people from 16 to 60-plus, a mix of races, genders, shapes and sizes, and we'd been working hard in a disused garment factory near the centre of Birmingham for upwards of two hours. Then, soaring operatic voices, accompanied only by a piano, cut the cold air. I hadn't spotted until that moment the professionals, all world-class; they'd been working alongside some 30 people of Birmingham, engaged in movement and character development led by international opera director Graham Vick and movement specialist Ron Howell, exploring the deeper themes of Beethoven's only opera.

The story of Fidelio is one of devoted married love, but it raises less domestic questions about freedom and the lengths to which a "good" person can justifiably go in the pursuit of an honourable goal. Suspecting her missing husband Florestan has been imprisoned, Leonore disguises herself as a young man, Fidelio, and finds employment at the prison run by the corrupt Pizarro. The jailer's daughter, Marzelline, falls in love with Fidelio and they talk of marriage. Meanwhile, Leonore determines to rescue the mysterious prisoner in solitary confinement, whether or not he is her husband. She recognises him to be Florestan just as Pizarro prepares to kill him, and draws a gun in his defence, but trumpets sound: the Minister Don Fernando has arrived, in the nick of time, to inspect the prison.

Fidelio is a notoriously difficult piece, but then the Birmingham Opera Company doesn't do things by halves. Last year, it was Alban Berg's dark, early 20th-century opera, Wozzeck, but many of the local people involved in that have come back, and brought their friends. Another 100 make up the choir. There are no auditions for the acting chorus, but the intention is to reach the highest standard, led by top professionals: BOC's director Graham Vick spends most of his working life directing abroad, at La Scala or the New York Met, and award-winning designer Paul Brown has just received ecstatic reviews for the set of the Almeida Theatre's King Lear in London. Fidelio, in a Big Top near Aston Villa football ground, jointly funded by the city and the Arts Council, will be just as spectacular.

Vick holds passionate views about the buzz words "access" and "education", but does not go in for conventional school workshops. "First-hand experience is the best. I have enormous confidence in the art form, it merely needs to be encountered - but it has to be a good encounter. Our culture has bred a lazy audience; you have to offer an active dialogue with everyone, the audience and the people in it, being part of the experience."

To this end, performances will be "promenade", with the audience moving on as the environment changes around them, making decisions, being part of the action. Taking the work out of a conventional space, Vick says, "goes a good way to demystifying the nonsense surrounding the art form, concentrating on the essence of what opera is about - drama through music - not on who goes to it."

It's almost midnight in one of the city's famous balti houses. Vick, Brown and Jean Nicholson (BOC's manager and rock), have had a long day and plan an early start, but enthusiasm still runs high. It is clear that all three agree on BOC's aims. Vick continues: "Opera should be readily available. It is about serious issues, challenging, disturbing, not romantic, soppy and generalised. It can change your life. Rehearsing gives me a chance to educate without teaching. This is not about a maestro sharing his expertise; we are building a production together."

Earlier, Brown has been withdrawing people to be fitted with costumes from racks beyond the tea urn and the microwave. Sam Dolphin, a middle-aged bridegroom in the opening sequence, discusses the tie which will best match his shirt for the wedding scene. "Will the ice be real?"he asks. "Yes," says Brown, "nine feet high and melting. Don't worry, we'll give you an anorak."

There will also be a row of washing machines (Marzelline does the prison laundry), prisoners under a grille, police with riot shields and a grave freshly dug in each performance. The ice is a symbol of the central couple's separation, but Vick is directing in such a way that the emotional experience of the principals is echoed many times among the chorus.

Vick asks everyone to watch one couple: 17-year-old Amit Amliwala is a graceful performing arts student from Solihull College. His partner is Donna Bateman, newly graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, singing her first lead role as Marzelline. Amit has taken part in Gallery 37, a five-week summer arts course for 16 to 24-year-olds. This was one of BOC's sources for performers. So were St Matthew's church, Perry Beeches, an organisation called Gay and Proud Performers, Birmingham Rep's club for young people, and Sheldon Heath community school.

On Friday, half a dozen young people arrive from Sheldon Heath for their first session. These are the only "pressed" group, here as part of their performing arts GNVQ. Lee McDonnell initially admits that opera and having to give up his McDonald's earnings for the next few weekends do not thrill him. After a couple of hours, having taken part in voice and movement exercises and listened to Vick's inspiring description of the story and set, he looks quite different. Like everyone else, he has been addressed as a professional and he is rising to the challenge. As Graham Vick says, it could change his life.

Six performances on alternate days from March 6.Tickets: 0121 236 4455

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