Songs of the city

English National Opera's South of the River project aims to reflect the Southwark area's vibrancy, as Michael Church reports

Between Tower Bridge and the new ziggurat in which Ken Livingstone's Greater London Authority is housed is a car park, in the middle of which a circus tent has sprouted. Blink and you'll miss it: like a mushroom, it's here today and will be gone next week, but what's been going on inside is both fleeting and of enduring significance.

On a stage covered with variegated graffiti a motley group chant with upraised fists, the youngest barely of school age, the oldest a former lady mayor of Southwark. On a bench at the back of the auditorium a girl sits revising for her ICT exam the next morning - this is 16-year-old Mumtaz Sadique, leader of a gang called Standard Crew and star of the show. The band swings into an R'n'B number, the director yells instructions, the lighting changes from red to yellow, the show moves on.

South of the River is the provocatively banal title of this work, which is expressly designed for this south-of-the-river spot. "I wanted a piece which would be specifically about this area at this point in time, and I think we've succeeded," says its co-ordinator John Riches. "It would be very difficult to stage this anywhere else, at any other time."

But the issues, Riches explains, are timeless - love, power, and privilege. "It's inspired by the urban regeneration going on round here, and it's about what happens in any regeneration project, as people try to cash in."

Look along the river, he says: everything is in a process of transformation. "But half a mile south, you get a very different picture, because there nothing's happening at all."

Two hundred local schoolchildren were involved in the work's gestation, with nobody turned away who wanted a part. "I believe you can create opera with anybody," insists Riches, adding that one of his stars is a local market trader who attracted his attention - and that of his creative colleagues - by bursting into song every 20 minutes. As English National Opera's outreach team - named the Baylis Project after the crusading work of their predecessor Lilian Baylis 100 years ago - Riches and co has settled on this novel scheme to mark the first four years of its residency in the London borough of Southwark.

Four hundred years ago, "south of the river" meant an entertainment precinct - dominated by the Globe theatre - where Londoners were encouraged to disport themselves, and prostitutes were licensed by the Church to ply for business. One hundred years ago, it had an insalubrious reputation as a haunt for gangsters and all kinds of ne'er-do-wells. Even today it's a gamy mixture of money and deprivation: perfect material for an opera spanning four centuries in which hip-hop and complex poly-phony sit side by side. Its designs have been done by a shadowy community of local graffiti artists - some of them, surprisingly, professionals in their 30s - whom designer Emma Wee has cajoled into anonymous collaboration.

poser Rachel Leach have imported classroom-created songs into their work: young extras can thus feel real ownership of the piece. It won't tour to New York, because that's emphatically not the intention. But in its brief awakening of the ghosts of Southwark's past it may serve as a beacon for the future.

Education work is often regarded by opera companies as their ticket to an Arts Council grant, and artistically very much as a sideline. But as Riches observes, ENO has realised that new work is now as likely to originate through their education departments as on the main stage, where economic imperatives and the need to get big audiences can inhibit creative freedom. Palace in the Sky, the community opera which the Baylis team staged two years ago in Hackney, also proved a great success.

Further details of ENO Baylis Tel: 020 7739 5808

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you