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Raising the tone of the aria

Mitchell Young, only ten years old but strutting the stage with all the aplomb of a pop star heart-throb, isn't quite who you'd expect to see as principal singer in the British premiere of a new opera. But then, you wouldn't have guessed either that the venue for such an event would be Herbert Thompson Junior School in one of Cardiff's most down-at-heel areas.

You'd be even more surprised to hear Mitchell's form teacher, Gil Davison explain that the production is an integral part of the information technology syllabus.

And if you think that is not the sort of thing that could ever happen in your school, think again: staff at Herbert Thompson are determined that primary schools, not only in the UK but throughout the world, will share in the excitement of producing future operas.

The only requirements are an Internet connection, a piano, some percussion - and plenty of oomph. Coyote and the Winter that Never Ends, in which Mitchell and every other pupil in Year 6 played a part, wasn't some end-of-term romp masquerading as an opera. Key players in the production were composer Mervyn Burtch and librettist Mark Morris. They met Herbert Thompson's headteacher Jennifer Griffin, an ex-professional singer, through contacts in the music world.

Burtch has an impressive list of works to his credit and has written hundreds of operas for children. His music, which owes more to Bartok and Stravinsky than Lloyd-Webber and the Spice Girls, is challenging but expertly crafted to be accessible to youngsters. Morris is author of the Methuen Guide to Twentieth Century Composers. Yet Burtch is in Cardiff, and Morris is in Alberta, Canada. They liaised by e-mail. So, too, did Herbert Thompson Junior and Norwood Elementary at Wetaskiwin, Alberta as pupils and staff in both the schools prepared to premiere the show in their respective countries. "The opera gives the schools a common bond, a shared experience," says Morris. "The combination is much more effective than, say, linking up with a twin town, where one doesn't have that sense of shared endeavour."

As well as enabling staff on both sides of the Atlantic to pick each other's brains on the practicalities of production, e-mail offered the ideal medium for pupils to chew the electronic cud. "It really helped to open up the world for them. They came to realise that in some respects children at Norwood lead lives that are very different from theirs, but in others , children in Canada are exactly the same as them, even though they are thousands of miles away," says Gil Davison.

"It's a real eye-opener for most of the pupils who come to this school. They don't go abroad, they never experience other cultures, they never meet foreigners."

There is another benefit. Children are willing to try that little bit harder at their writing when they know it is going to be read by their Canadian peers, or, indeed, by a potential audience of millions if it is published on the impressive World Wide Web site run jointly by both schools.

As well as the obvious contribution the opera has made to the music and information technology strands of the curriculum, Ms Griffin stresses another crucial educational dimension. "The children are very conscious of being involved in something Really Important." Ms Griffin has that teacher's knack of being able to slip capitals into her speech. "They know that the opera has been written Especially for Them. That they are Sensible enough to use the Latest Technology for Themselves. That what they are doing is So Interesting that journalists and photographers want to visit the school."

Quite simply, kids at Herbert Thompson are labelled - as they have been for generations. But now the label, all in capitals, reads "VIP".

Boosting the school's collective ego, Ms Griffin argues, is fundamental to improving academic standards. If pupils feel positive about themselves, they'll be positive in their attitude to work. Children from backgrounds where failure is taken for granted need to be taught that they Can Succeed.She describes it as "teaching optimism" and is convinced the opera project has played a significant part in bringing about dramatic improvements in pupils' numeracy and literacy. "The opera shows them they can be as successful as anyone. That there's a wide world out there and that they can take it by storm."

Griffin, Burtch and Morris are keen for other schools to share in the excitement. The web site contains the complete libretto, and details of how to obtain the score of Coyote and the Winter that Never Ends. The Canadian folk tale, which the school performed in June, tells the story of a winter that will never end until all the animals and a hillbilly family die - unless the Coyote collects the shattered pieces of the rainbow.

Better still, primary schools are invited to join Herbert Thompson and Norwood in staging Wizard Ways, a new opera to be premiered in the next spring term. In this opera, a small community inadvertentl y disturbs the spirit of Merlin when it tries to turn its village into a tourist attraction.

And schools that really want to establish e-mail links with other schools around the world could participate in a remarkable international project planned for 1999. Schools in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Norway, Germany, and Japan as well as the UK and Ireland are already gearing up to present an opera that Burtch and Morris promise will have a truly international flavour. There is no limit to the number of other primary schools that can participate. After the schools have staged their individual productions, two grand performances will be held at Banff in Canada and at the Spitalfields Market Opera in London. The casts at these shows will be made up of representatives from all the participating schools.

It's going to be a mammoth undertaking - "a logistical nightmare if it weren't for the Internet", according to Mark Morris who manages the web site that will remain the focal point of the project. But it will take more than just new technology to ensure success: major sponsors will have to be found. Jennifer Griffin has no doubt that they will, and that, of course, is what you'd expect from someone who is in the business of teaching optimism.

The joint web site is at: http:www. wtc.ccinet.ab.cacoyote Contact Herbert Thompson Junior School, Plymouth Road, Ely, Cardiff. tel: 01222 564342 e-mail:

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