Are arias the new rock 'n' roll? Nigel Williamson meets those responsible for Zo , Glyndebourne's offering for and by teenagers.
With a plot that involves a college rock band, genetic cloning, a bunch of eco-warriors and a teenage pupil who lives with her teacher, one swiftly realises that Zo is not exactly standard Glyndebourne operatic fare.
Written by librettist Stephen Plaice (best known as a scriptwriter for ITV's The Bill) and composer John Lunn (responsible for the music for television's Hamish Macbeth and Back Up), Zo is the first "teenage opera" commissioned by Glyndebourne as part of the house's progressive education policy which aims to break down the barriers that divide the art form from its potential audience.
In rehearsals during half-term week, an exuberant teenage cast are bringing a zest and energy to the production that is more normally associated with a sweaty dance floor. At least two of the principals, Emily Gilchrist, 17, who sings the title role, and Mark Enticknap, 19, who plays her classmate Luke, look to be stars in the making. In the pit, the Brighton Youth Orchestra play with impressive flair; in the wings, youthful would-be stage managers shadow Glyndebourne's house professionals. Further behind the scenes, young volunteers assist in wardrobe, make-up and every other vital back-up function.
As their work takes shape under the direction of Stephen Langridge, the writers watch with growing excitement from the stalls. "At first glance an opera for teenagers might seem like a contradiction in terms," Plaice says. "But we felt that if teenagers had difficulty in adapting to the culture of the opera house, maybe it was time for that culture to adapt to them. We aimed to achieve something of the pace that a television-watching and film-going audience expects, rather than relying on the traditional methods of satisfying a conventional opera-going audience."
Not that Zo is in any way a rock opera. All the values traditionally associated with a Glyndebourne production in terms of musical and dramatic integrity are intact, albeit in more youthful form. "There has been no compromise or letting up because it is a young people's opera. I've directed it in exactly the same way I approach any other professional show," Langridge says. "And although it has this popular surface, beneath it there are incredibly deep and complex levels."
Yet there can be no doubt that Zo will bring a new kind of youthful audience into the house, an audience which might have felt opera was an intimidating form of "high culture" which it could never understand, appreciate or afford. (The most expensive adult seats are pound;12.50 compared with pound;130 for Glyndebourne's summer productions.) "There has been a great divide between adult and youth culture since the Sixties. They have become removed from each other. This production tries to bring them back together," Plaice says.
"There is an emotional dynamic in Zo which is perhaps missing from conventional opera, but it's not iconoclastic and it's not attempting to topple traditional operatic culture. It's building a bridge. Not every kid who comes to see it is going to turn into an opera lover, but I hope it will generate a greater tolerance and broaden musical tastes."
The commission offered to Plaice and Lunn was simple but challenging: to create an opera that would appeal to teenagers. Most of what had previously been written in operatic form for young people had been patronising, according to Plaice. "That's why we chose to explore that transitional period between being a teenage and an adult, that universal watershed moment. So in a way we had an eye on an adult audience as well."
The creative team of Plaice, Lunn and Langridge started with a series of workshops in six Brighton schools, a blank sheet of paper and open minds. "We wanted to get at the anxieties and preoccupations of young people today. The story and the characters were created out of that background. We wanted it to be authentic and for young people to feel they had ownership of the process." Plaice says.
Their prime function was to ask questions and listen, according to Langridge. "We didn't know the answers and we had to be told. We asked a question and it was like lighting a fire. We struck a rich vein of issues which lent themselves to being explored through music and theatre." And although the opera does address important issues, it avoids becoming a soapbox and works primarily as a fast-paced piece of musical drama. "It had to work as pure entertainment, but as a teenage opera it does deal with life at an age when you are beginning to focus on a world beyond the orbit of home and school. Teenagers are thinking about the planet and about politics and coming to extreme judgments. We had to find an authentic way of reflecting that," Plaice says.
Set in a sixth-form college, Zo appears initially to be concerned with everyday teenage concerns such as relationships and romance. Yet as the work proceeds, its themes grow darker and the mood more sinister. It emerges that Zo has been cloned by her geneticist father. The denouement is stark and tragic, and Plaice makes no apologies. "Opera needs something to lift it out of the realistic frame, to bump up its emotional content. Every post-nuclear adolescent generation has a presentiment of doom and I felt the story should have the courage to express that. Teenagers have little patience with happy endings."
The opera was still taking shape when open auditions were held last November. With a cast in place, rehearsals began in mid-January. "Once the story was developed, the cast became like script editors," Langridge says. "They would say 'this bit isn't credible' or that something else didn't work. And I like that energy. I don't find it very easy to work in an atmosphere of complete obedience. Obviously, they are not experienced in opera or the theatre. But it is their world we are presenting."
Part of the extensive Glyndebourne education programme overseen by Katie Tearle, Zo follows the 1997 production of Misper, an opera for a younger age group from the same team. Out of that experience came the Glyndebourne Youth Opera group, which attracts around 60 enthusiastic under-16s every other Sunday in the autumn and spring terms, taking advantage of the fact that the festival opera's house is largely unused in the winter. Tearle and her team also go on the road with Glyndebourne Touring Opera, running GCSE and A-level workshops in every town where the company performs. In recent weeks they have been going into Sussex schools to talk about Zo and the issues it raises.
"Glyndebourne is supposedly the most elitist of all opera houses, yet it has led the way in terms of inviting the local community into the house and handing over the resources," Langridge says. "And they've also been bold enough to allow the genre of opera to be changed and influenced by the people who've come in. This is the other face of Glyndebourne - instead of champagne and hampers, it's Coke and crisps."
Zo 's run at Glyndebourne ends tomorrow (March 4). Box office: 01273 815025. Teacher's pack information on www.glyndebourne.com