Stage reset for opera fun

Scottish Opera For All has been recognised as a leader in European education work for more than a decade, so the news that it has changed tack in this year's summer school could raise eyebrows in opera houses from here to Helsinki. It would be a simplification to say the company has switched its emphasis from opera to children, but that best sums up this pivotal development.

Most opera companies stumble into youth work in the vague hope that they are building the audience of the future and then realise that to justify the 30-year wait between the outlay on summer schools and the return from middle-aged opera audiences needs the company accountant to be more creative than the arts worker. SOFA's strategy of staging the summer school in Glasgow's Theatre Royal may have brought a new audience to the opera house, but it is still too wide a gap to leap between seeing little Calum and Kirstie on stage and then coming back for the Ring cycle.

So this year SOFA abandoned the practice of rehearsing an operetta for a week and decamped to the Tramway with 60 children and half as many arts workers and chaperones to "improvise" and perform their own opera, allowing themselves all of two weeks to do it. For the sake of everyone's sanity, director Elly Goodman and the SOFA team went in with some plot line and musical scaffolding and the children were more than happy to fill it out with runes and rhymes.

The result was, patently, huge fun, for the company, for the arts workers and for the audience. The Quest of Derik, the Unwilling Viking was mostly a gentle send-up of Wagner's epics, beginning with the dying king disclosing with his last breath the secret that his son "has a lost broI".

The search for the lost bra (the dialogue has a strong Primary 7 flavour) is soon overtaken by the wolf king's theft of the golden cornucopia and the quest for its recovery. Five heroes and heroines are chosen for the task, including the diminutive Derik, who clearly is not a hero to his mother.

The group is carried across the ocean by a splendid longship, swallowed and regurgitated by a remarkable sea monster and then breaks into the walled kingdom of the wolf people. These three features were the outstanding contributions from the seven members of the design course, which was created this year to include those who had outgrown the opera summer school but not opera itself.

All this stage furniture, and a spookily atmospheric set (by Fiona Foley) and lighting (by Craig Fleming), provided an impressive background for a spirited, disciplined production. It included many engaging performances, none better or briefer than the Queen and Enchantress of the Nibelung, who remains anonymous because, in wisdom or in haste, the programme put no names to the roles.

Nor did it identify the music out of copyright. "It's 'spot the opera'

time," said music specialist Karen MacIver. Mozart and Prokofiev emerged almost unscathed but Wagner got the Gerard Hoffnung treatment, with "Ride of the Valkyrie" put to a lyric beginning "We are the cleaners" and sung by a dozen blonde-wigged, mop-wielding skivvies.

SOFA has documented the fortnight for evaluation and refinement of this new "improvised" opera summer school. There is no doubt that the spontaneity and interplay of improvisation were highly creative but they depended on the child-writers to do homework as well. Weighing this solitary creativity against the group improvisation may be one of their concerns, though in future years they may judge themselves on how near the children get to be scaffolders.

Scottish Opera For All, tel 0141 248 4567

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