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Little angels join the pros on stage

Scottish Opera's education team is demanding more from pupils, challenging them to perform in public and with an orchestra, reports Brian Hayward.

Nothing is so simple or works so well in education as allowing children to partner excellence. Nothing shows so vividly what is possible, nothing inspires (or maybe daunts) so completely.

This is one of the reasons why Joy McFarlane, the headteacher of Dunblane Primary, was very ready to let singers at the school join forces with Scottish Opera on Tour (Soot).

'You should have seen their faces when they heard our singers for the first time!" she remembers, delightedly. "They were so amazed by the quality of the voices."

Ms McFarlane values the arts for the confidence and self-esteem they confer and so the school has a strong musical programme, with talented (her word) staff producing annual music dramas with three age groups.

Schools such as Dunblane Primary were just what Jane Davidson, the head of education at Scottish Opera, was looking for when she was devising the Soot programme for Hansel and Gretel. In each of the eight venues, children from local primary schools take the roles of angels and stolen children.

Ms Davidson's years of experience of taking opera to primary schools with Scottish Opera For All give her confidence in knowing how much singing and acting a child can be taught in a short time and then perform in public with confidence and satisfaction.

The company toured the opera five years ago, but this time it is touring with an orchestra. This is an added complication for the children, who learn the music in their schools with a piano. To help overcome the difficulties of the changeover, schools were sent a CD giving the orchestral cues the children could expect.

With their songs and steps learned in school with the help of Soot drama and music tutors, the children had only an hour to try their moves and costumes (the angels have battery packs on their wings) on the set before their evening performance.

At Stirling's Albert Halls, the Dunblane, Cambusbarron and Cornton primary pupils played their full part in what is in every way an intelligently staged and attractive production, and certainly not one to frighten children.

Despite what Jennifer Johnston sings so persuasively, you would think her Hansel positively thrives on famine, and Miranda Keys, who doubles as the children's mother and the witch, is a deal more unpleasant as the former than the latter, when her cannibal habits are cloaked in some very capable comedy. Even her death - burned in her own oven - has a light-hearted pay-off.

Claire Wild is a lissom Gretel, a biddable puppet for the witch's wand, and a superb cast of singers is completed by Roland Wood as the genial father and Rebecca Bottone as the half-woman, half-puppet Dew Fairy.

Touring opera, however, has its peculiarities. Venues such as the Albert Halls do not have the luxury of an orchestra pit, so the 19 musicians were in full and illuminated view in front of the stage. This was a constant reminder, if one were needed, of the brilliant reduction that conductor Derek Clark has made of Humperdinck's score.

Anyone writing opera in Germany in the 1890s wrote in the shadow of Wagner's orchestration. Clark's refining pen has had the effect of returning the work closer to its simpler origins as a singspiel. Even so, freed from the muffling effect of the pit, in the unrestrained acoustic of the public hall, the orchestra seemed sometimes between the audience and the singers rather than supporting the voices.

This is not to grumble about not hearing all the words: you never can in opera, whatever the language, which is why a synopsis is always given in the programme.

That prompts me to hope that box offices can find a way of sending out programmes with tickets. Programmes as helpful and perceptive as Scottish Opera's demand careful reading before the event.

Hansel and Gretel

Scottish Opera on Tour Tait Hall, Kelso April 22

Eden Court Theatre, Inverness April 25

Community Centre, Portree, Skye April 27

Assembly Rooms, Wick April 29

www.scottishopera.org.uk

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