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Macbeth doth murder sleep

Orkney to Stranraer, children are getting the chance to tread the boards with Scottish Opera, writes Brian Hayward

With six-hour dress rehearsals and nerves before audiences of 400-plus, those immortal lines from Macbeth were never truer for the Scottish Opera cast. But ask any of the six lucky children appearing in this autumn's production to choose otherwise and the answer would be "No".

The artistic and commercial success of putting local children on stage in last year's tour of Hansel and Gretel looks set to become a trend. This year, roles have been devised for children in Verdi's grand opera, now scaled down to chamber size to fit theatre stages and village halls from Orkney to Stranraer.

With a piano instead of an orchestra, and stripped of its choruses of witches, soldiers and exiles - these are straitened times for ScotOp - director Dominic Hill has willingly grasped the chance of using six local children to augment his cast of eight, who double and treble up to cover singing lines.

Although years of touring schools have given Scottish Opera For All a fat address book, to launch the tour they chose a school they had never worked with before. As the eight-week, 19-venue tour was being launched in Dundee Rep, the director's "home" theatre, they chose Park Place Primary, "the school next door" with which the Rep already had good relations, not least because some of the theatre staff's children go there.

Soon after the summer holiday, the SOFA education team of Lissa Lorenzo and Sharon Miller worked at the school for a day, with a workshop for P7 in the morning, and the afternoon to coach the excited and delighted three boys and three girls chosen for the stage work.

Their non-singing roles included what theatre people call "dressing", when they stand in the inner stage as in a family photograph of Macduff's family, or lie in rags and exhaustion as exiles from Macbeth's anarchic kingdom. The acting comes in the "cauldron" scene, when one by one the six emerge as the line of kings summoned up by the witches to sit in regal solemnity round the table.

The star turn is undoubtedly Banquo's son Fleance (Ben in Dundee). He has to sit attentive while sung to at close quarters by the weighty bass of Richard Wiegold's Banquo before fighting off the clutches of Lady Macbeth for a quick exit out of the small window.

At the following Monday morning assembly, the six read to the school their accounts of the experience. Among other things, Ben wrote: "I had a magnificent time in my own part with my father. Richard is a bass, which is the deepest kind of man's voice. I hadn't realised how loud it would be, but I got used to it. I had a tumbly stomach before, but I was all right when I was on stage."

Headteacher Pamela Nisbett goes further than that in her praise: "I was helping backstage and watching from the side. I was really proud of the way they concentrated on doing everything the way they had been directed, especially Ben who had to shout 'No!' at exactly the right moment.

"Scottish Opera were fantastic with the children. They had an exciting experience and it doesn't surprise me that now some of them want a career in the theatre."

These minutes under the bright lights and these hours in the company of professional musicians and theatre people are not the only educational juice SOFA manages to squeeze from the opera.

This is just one small part of the ongoing love-in between the opera company and its education department.

In the good old days when ScotOp had in-house productions, SOFA came up with the innovative idea of offering a performance-based teaching programme to support teachers working at Standard grade and beyond. This they now carry forward with the present tour in something they call "Opera Unwrap".

Some six weeks before the theatre visit, the participating schools get their curriculum-based teaching packs for English, art and design, and music. Included with these are a synopsis of the plot and a score and CD of the music.

These are good preparation for the 1,200 or so Standard grade pupils who then go to their local theatres, the Magnum at Irvine, Hamilton Town House and Palace Theatre Kilmarnock, for an abridged version of the production.

In this hour-long presentation the company present key scenes from the opera, highlighting for interpretation Macbeth's hallucination with the dagger, and Lady Macbeth's mad scene.

You just hope they told the singers about this at the auditions.

More information, tel 0141 242 0563

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