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Offstage upsets alter SOFA plans

Restructuring at Scottish Opera has hit SOFA's summer school, but the team are hoping to carry on their good work, writes Brian Hayward

The upheaval at Scottish Opera, where 88 jobs are being cut in a restructuring of the company, will have its repercussions for schools.

The education work will go on, but no one knows to what extent. Even Jane Davidson, long-term leader of Scottish Opera For All, Scottish Opera's education unit, shares what she calls the "pandemic anxiety" in the company and cannot be entirely confident about SOFA's future.

"We go on with the planning," she says, "and look forward to our new autumn school performance project of Fever!

"We're helping science this time. It explains the relationship between viruses and bacteria. And we're also hoping to have another tour of Auntie Janet Saves the Planet, our ecology musical for primary schools."

But, despite her optimism, the signs are not promising for education. The first casualty of the restructuring was this year's summer school, which normally would be attended by many of the children who were part of the Saturday classes for pre-school and P1-P7 pupils that run in 10-week blocks throughout the school year.

The theme for the Saturday classes follows SOFA's standard practice of basing all its work on an opera in the current Scottish Opera repertoire.

This year it was The Minotaur, its first opera for children, that provided both the presentations at the end of the year-long Saturday sessions and the P5-S2 in-school work.

The huge and accurate claim for opera is that it is the temple wherein all the arts reside, which certainly covers the curriculum. The visual arts specialist who works with the pre-school group drew a life-size full frontal image of the Minotaur for scenery. The drama leaders then had to balance the emotional involvement of the children with a range of suitable expressive skills. The involvement, they found, came through the notion of being a hero, of proving yourself, and the skills ranged through percussion, improvisation, slow-motion drama, movement, mime and dialogue.

The project sums up why SOFA is able to be a leader in arts education in Scotland (and indeed in Europe). Its great advantage, at a time when arts education is being carried on more and more by non-school agencies, is that it has the unequalled resource of an opera house at its fingertips.

Ms Davidson's challenge has been to try to match this powerful resource with drama and music teachers of suitable quality, enlisted from the pool of those who cannot (for lack of opportunity) or will not (for their own reasons) be full-time schoolteachers.

Take the co-leaders of the 9-11 age group, for example. Matthew Brown is a music specialist who straddles school and non-school work. Amply qualified with a degree and a postgraduate degree in composition, he also teaches piano and trumpet in a leading fee-paying school, does Saturday work at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and helps out with two West Lothian youth theatres. For the Saturday classes he basically played Julian Evans's The Minotaur score but also used what he modestly calls his own vamping for the drama and the delightfully comic interpolation of "The Lambeth Walk", the result of mishearing a request for the "labyrinth walk" from drama leader Sharon Millar, a long-time SOFA worker.

She began as a primary teacher and gave it up to retrain in acting, which took her into the theatre, then freelance drama work and now she does theatre-in-education, therapy and prison work.

"I wake up every morning and look forward to my work," she admits. "I did try school teaching again but drama is so reduced in the classroom. I couldn't cope with ticking all those boxes.

"Out of school you can take the child as she or he is. I'm lucky to see these kids as they really are. I can embrace all the personalities and watch them grow.

"The thing about drama is that it creeps into every nook and cranny of the soul.

"Opera and Shakespeare is really all you need; they lend themselves to social development; they are so easily differentiated; they are for everybody."

Scottish Opera For All, tel 0141 248 4567

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