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Music for a royal court

Philippa Davidson listens to community and schools perform an opera about the Queen of Sheba. May I interview you?' asked a budding nine-year-old reporter on the lookout for celebrities at the Blackheath Concert Halls. Funny, I thought that was my job. She flipped her notepad, searching for her list of questions. "What do you do?" "A journalist." "How do you spell that?" I told her. "Have you any children?" I said I hadn't.

Then came a pause as her friend snapped me sitting at the bar. "I can't think of anything else to ask." I know the feeling. At this point the two were whisked away to get ready for the first night of The Queen of Sheba's Legs in which they played - you've guessed it - newspaper reporters.

Blackheath's new community opera, with music by Julian Grant and text by Marina Warner, was commissioned by the English National Opera Baylis Programme three years ago. Blackheath's version was staged with a cast of 100 children aged 7 to 14 from schools in Lewisham and Greenwich, supported by amateur and professional singers and a professional production team. Students from Rose Bruford College created the designs for the costumes and made the props, and a newspaper, produced by the cast, doubled as a programme.

Community officer Andrew Burke expanded on Blackheath's policy of drawing the community into its work. The process started two years ago with a per-formance of Noyes Fludde involving local children. "After Noyes Fludde which we did with the National Youth Music Theatre I wanted something which we could produce in house. Sheba was ideal as it involved both professionals and children as well as older students."

Rehearsals started at the end of August and continued every weekend until the performance. "The professionals worked with the children's ideas and a lot of what you see on stage is a product of their imagination. We have applied professional standards and, I hope, given the children a sense of ownership in the piece."

The myth of the Queen of Sheba's legs, taken from the Koran, fascinated novelist and first-time librettist Marina Warner. The action centres on the courts of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, the one high tech and populated with characters such as Satellite Dish and Fax Genie, the other a small and fertile oasis whose people survive on what composer Julian Grant describes as a more "intuitive" level. Solomon wants to know if there is any truth in the rumour that the Queen of Sheba has the legs of a dragon and conjures up a magic stream in which her legs will be reflected as she crosses it. In the end only Solomon sees the truth.

The myth and magic of this story are in fact more difficult to convey in operatic form - especially when the singers are children - than might first appear. In the Baylis Programme version, on the composer's admission, the action was frankly confused. Julian Grant explained that the opera had been reworked to sharpen the storyline. "It's an excellent story with role models for both boys and girls. It so happened that we had more girls than boys in the cast so we were able to give Sheba an all female court."

Grant deliberately devised a score with opportunities for the children to contribute their own musical interludes. After he had shaped their ideas - Sheba's first appearance and the incident in which two women fight over a baby - the difference between the children's scenes and his own was not so easy to identify. Young musicians from Charlton Park School created computer music which was inserted into the score. "Working with children is a great leveller, " said Grant. "I haven't been tempted to write down for them."

Peter Ash, director of the Endymion Ensemble who performed the music, spoke of the difficulty of combining the disparate elements. "It has been all about getting people to realise their potential and pushing the children as far as they would go. We aimed to show them how a whole cast can work together. " The relationship with the soloists was particularly successful. Charismatic Danish soprano Annemarie Sand, a dazzling Queen of Sheba, obviously mesmerised the children and the rapport was equally evident with Jozic Koc who played Solomon.

Rearranging the chairs in the concert hall to create a space for movement helped audience involvement but at the same time detracted from the action on the stage proper. Regrettably, this piece which has much to offer musically and theatrically to those who take part in it is still unsatisfactory for an audience as so much depends on the text which is difficult to follow unless one is sitting very close to the performers. But visually this was again a stunning production, particularly in its use of blue, green and silver for the costumes and balloons of Sheba's court.

Blackheath's next enterprise will be in 1996 when Andrew Burke hopes to stage an even more ambitious community project. "It was great to see the children who played in Noyes Fludde returning for Sheba. The next step will be to create an arts club so that the interest can be on-going."

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