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Songs of the North

Opera North has a mission to tell young people about the joys of contemporary music, says Michael Burnett. A recent Opera North project in Scarborough proved a great success. "It was a brilliant opportunity for members of the local community to get involved in musical theatre," says Ian Wainwright, education officer at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, which hosted the project. "The participants were thrilled to be working with artists from Opera North and they certainly learned a lot from the experience."

The project was based upon ideas and themes from Alban Berg's Wozzeck and involved five local groups, including one from Scarborough's sixth-form college and another, the Rounders Youth Theatre Group, from the Stephen Joseph Theatre. "They're named after the fact that we're a theatre in the round," Wainwright says. "And working in the round is excellent for a community project because it breaks down the audience-performer barrier."

Opera North's outreach projects take their artists and head of community education Dominic Gray not just to Scarborough but to towns and cities all over northern England.

"Our aim is to encourage a contemporary and creative response to opera repertoire among young people in particular," Gray says. "We run a year-round programme of events in our main tour centres. And we take our outreach work into areas where people cannot easily attend opera, such as North Yorkshire and Humberside. The work we do in regions remote from the opera venues is usually of a creative performance nature. While that in tour areas tends to be tied-in with the operas in our current repertoire. But our approach is very flexible. "

This flexibility was apparent when I sat in on the beginnings of a Madame Butterfly project in Pontefract. Led by composer Lynne Plowman and singer Liz Rodger, 20 sixth-formers at New College spent two days exploring ideas from Puccini's opera as well as extending themselves more generally as composers.

"All of the students are doing A-level," says head of music Fiona Preston. "And the most valuable aspect of what's going on is that they are looking at avant-garde styles of composition and learning not to be frightened about music that doesn't have a melodic approach."

"We talked about the three main themes from the opera - love, separation and returning," student Zara Gurtler says. "And, as a group, we created the atmosphere of a Japanese garden by walking round in a circle humming and whistling. You really felt as if you were there in the garden, with the birds coming to life and the flowers opening up."

Soprano Claire Higgins was thrilled at Liz Rodger's interpretation of Butterfly's aria from the beginning of Act 2 of the opera. "Shivers went down my spine," she says. "I just wanted to cry because she put across the emotions so well."

But what does Opera North offer students without experience of the genre? "They give people the opportunity to find out about the opera in a way that's not boring. And they help get rid of the idea that opera is just fat people sounding like sea-gulls and wallowing in self-indulgence."

Having laid the basis of the project, Lynne Plowman, Liz Rodger and the New College students will join a designer and director in working for a week with pupils from six Pontefract primary schools before mounting a joint presentation of the work next January.

Ralph Jaggar is deputy head of Halfpenny Lane Primary, one of the participating schools. How does the project relate to the curriculum? "The national curriculum has lifted standards in schools," he says. "But a project like this puts the jam on the curriculum. We've got to give the arts a fair share of the time in schools so that children can develop their social and academic skills."

Other Opera North activities include a four-day project in Batley involving a music and drama collaboration between 13 and 14-year-olds and over-60s, Gloriana workshops in Selby preparing GCSE students for a performance of the opera, and, in Leeds, a secondary schools multi-cultural project on grandparents involving an Asian singer and English folk-song writer.

"When I went home last night I was really on a high," says New College student Claire Higgins. "I couldn't stop telling my parents all about Madame Butterfly and what we'd done on the project." And Claire is just one of Opera North's satisfied customers.

u Madame Butterfly project performance, Pontefract, January 17, Carleton High School (contact Ralph Jaggar 01977 702025); Opera North Education, 0113 243 9999.

u The Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival is on until December 1 and features several educational events including a percussion project led by South African composer Eugene Skeef (information 01484 472103).

u Global Spirit, the first London WOMAD weekend of world music, is on at the London Barbican Centre from December 6 to 8 (tickets 0171 638 8891).

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