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Operatic youngsters conquer Olympus;Arts in Scotland

How do you get children to turn on, tune in, to opera? It's a question Jane Davidson, project director for Scottish Opera for All, has to ask herself every day of her working life.

For some, the answer is an enthusiast schoolteacher, for some a football World Cup jingle. Her personal experience, as it happens, is no help. The first she saw of opera was in a student job as dresser of the Theatre Royal, "daubing gold paint on the bums of the men's chorus".

At least the story shows how unknown opera is, or was, to even the educated minority, but compared with European children (who seem to accept it as part of the cultural landscape), she detects an ingrained resistance to opera in our young people. So her reaction to being handed Richard Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos for her 1998 linking project, has to be imagined. "It would not have been my first choice for P7," she says, wide-eyed.

Indeed, the story of the forsaken Ariadne finding eternal love on Mount Olympus with the god Bacchus will always struggle to compete with the Spice Girls, even in its stunning Scottish Opera production.

Happily for Davidson, Strauss contextualised the story, having his fussy young composer (sung with huge petulance by Diana Montague) staging his premiere in a rich man's house.

That was all the hint designer Tim Hatley needed to dazzle his audience with an interior as witty as it is sumptuous. The conversation piece has to be the much larger-than-life golden tortoise, a functional tortoise moreover, but even that is just part of the furniture. The fit-up set the servants build in the room ends up as a walkway into the clouds, which the lovers ascend in the whirlwind music of Strauss's finale.

Such is the standing of the education unit at Scottish Opera these days that permission was readily given for Edinburgh's P7s to have the run of this amazing set on-stage at the Festival Theatre, and Davidson knew she had all the carrot she needed.

All 3,000 upper primary pupils were invited, and 350 of them asked to give up three Saturday mornings and three days' holiday to be part of the drama, art, music and dance workshops and rehearsals leading to the performance last Wednesday.

There was an interesting imbalance in the applications. They were swamped with dancers - "boys have football, girls have dance," Davidson observes wryly. Art and drama were strong, but only 14 came forward as instrumentalists, which in the light of recent fears about music teaching could be worrying. So all the music applicants, and a selection of the others, made up the group of 70. Davidson was not reluctant to turn away so many: "It's the quality of the experience that matters. The groups need to be small enough for the tutors to get to know them personally, to challenge them, to get them to achieve. We're talking about individuals here."

Challenge there certainly was, sometimes slightly too much. David Munro, the music specialist of the company, searched Strauss's score for "the two most comprehensible tunes" on which to base his creative work with his 14 players. Using them to explore musical ideas, he became enthused with showing his little group what he called "progressive triangular tonics" with ever-increasing complication until stopped in his tracks by the pleading remonstration, "But we are only P7".

Not that Munro went without challenge himself. While I was at the Opera for All workshops, Preston Street Primary had workmen on site doing building repairs above the music practice room.

Munro was grateful for the masonry hammer staying on the beat, like some thunderous metronome, but the power drill was on E flat, and the young ladies' violins were playing in G major.

There were no such problems in the school gym, where Pauline Laverty's choreography for her willing dancers went hand-in-hand with Julian Evans's patient piano. The aroma of adhesive in Rita Winters' craft room was almost actionable, but the psychedelia remained firmly in the exotic costumes her group were creating. In the tiny space cleared for drama, Eleanor Goodman rehearsed her group, continually reminding them that they would be performing on one of the largest stages in Europe.

That they did was down to the on-going support of the arts and culture and education committees (while Glasgow still deliberates). The reward for them and Opera for All, and for the Festival Theatre's education and sales officer Jo Pink, was that on one afternoon of the Ariadne auf Naxos run, 350 families and friends watched Edinburgh children in their own version of the story, all over Scottish Opera's set. Then it was given back to the company's splendid cast, but not before the stage manager had checked the golden tortoise for stowaways.

Brian Hayward

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