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Home come the heroes

Scottish primary children have taken an opera to the Dome and returned triumphant. Brian Hayward is overawed

It is doubtful whether any of the 2,500 spectators who packed the transformed Maritime Museum in Irvine at the beginning of this month could imagine a more spectacular display of children's theatre than the opera Turn of the Tide. The performances they witnessed ended a remarkable year-long collaboration between North Ayrshire Council and Scottish Opera for All.

This epic project started with the invitation from McDonalds Restaurants to every local authority in Britain to take its story to the Millennium Dome in Greenwich. With unusual courage and vision, North Ayrshire commissioned Scottish Opera for All to help tell the story, and two of their animateurs began workshops with the local junior choir to develop a plot.

At the same time, Helsinki was planning its year as City of Culture and was anxious to feature a conspicuous example of arts in education. Finnish educationists had already seen SOFA in action in Ayrshire, so they decided on a joint project, based on a story line of Ayrshire smugglers rescuing a fallen Finnish god.

A cast made up of the North Ayrshire Junior Choir and 32 young Finns put on a pilot performance at the Alexander Theatre in Helsinki last March. This successful production served to launch a high-profile arts education conference for the City of Culture and acted as a template for a Finnish version of SOFA, which is now up and running.

For the Irvine version of the opera, the Helsinki cast was augmented by no fewer than 900 pupils from all the primary schools in North Ayrshire. They were shared between three casts for each of the three performance nights.

SOFA lavished the visual trappings of opera on the casts. An extensive wardrobe by costume designer Helen Keenan dressed the Scottish and Viking armies at Largs in plaid or horned helmets, the underworld spirits of the dark land ofPohjola, the bloodstained family of Sawney Bean, and the Tweedledums and Tweedledees of a fantasy Scottish Parliament. Designer Jim Cursiter provided a well-rigged sailing boat and a convincing sea monster. Lighting man Ian Swincoe turned the sky red for the storms, painted the sea in the blues of either calm or storm and conjured dramatic entrances in smoke and silhouette.

It looked like grand opera, with committed performances from hundreds of children who had been led and inspired to a remarkable level of achievement. SOFA supremo Jane Davidson has, over the years, gathered around her a team of arts workers who all share her belief in the uncompromising pursuit of excellence.

Maxine Railton's choreography was most conspicuous in the overwhelming energy of the Battle of Largs, led by some impressive syncopated percussion from the North Ayrshire Schools' Band by pupils Sian McLean and Lindsay Miller. To pianist and music specialist Marion Christie and conductor Julian Evans must go the credit for choruses of full-throated singing, supported by Karen MacIver's diverting score. Librettist Ross Stenhouse must have been gratified by the clarity of the lyrics.

It fell to director Elena Goodman to command this great enterprise. It is a tribute to her style that the rigorous discipline of the crowded arena seemed to come from within the children, that their hardly-wavering focus and concentration expressed itself in a fervour and involvement that shone through the performance.

They were greatly helped by the two principals, Ann Archibald and David Stephenson, the one taking time off from playing Josephine in HMS Pinafore at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, the other from his roles with the Carla Rosa Opera Company. They led the companies with great composure, so that now the smugglers who roughly captured the fallen god and the evil sprites who gathered around their wicked queen know what singing is all about at first hand.

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