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Storytelling that turns into musical for all

This month Scottish Opera For All are in Bermuda, working their primary school 1719 Jacobite opera and improvising a performance piece out of The Tempest.

If that sounds exotic, then compare it with what the company was doing last month in North Ayrshire, where arts officer Norma McCrone commissioned a work to teach biodiversity to early years and pre-school children.

Composer Karen McIver and librettist Mark Robertson obviously found Auntie Janet Saves the Planet too good a title to resist, though Auntie Janet, who is a very hospitable hen, in fact merely saves local fauna from the ravages of the bulldozer. That disappointment aside, the rest of the venture is awash with intelligence and is impressive both in its detail and its scope, not least with the theatre paraphernalia that SOFA brings along, to be set up in three school halls over three weeks.

It is the arena for the musical tale of three characters going in search of their saviour. In the compere role of Sergeant George, the hare, Ronnie Simon is all ears and bonhomie. Debra Stuart flutters apologetically as Madame Pipistrelle, a soprano with weak eyesight, and Marion Christie flutes her way through the wordless role of sad Mavis the song thrush. When they finally find Auntie Janet, played by Chris Duffy, she has already voiced the puppets of the bat, bird, hare and other creatures they meet in their search. The undoubted star of these is the Rat-in-the-bath, who deserves his own television series.

Together, the SOFA quartet give children a great theatrical experience. It climaxes a project that begins in the classroom with a teacher's pack that covers the necessary biology and narrative preparation, and includes a CD to develop listening skills and a complementary story book, to be read by the teacher. Also in the pack is the beginning of a second story, to be read by the teacher to children as they wait by the theatre in vole costumes. This storytelling is interrupted by one of the characters, dressed like the illustration in the book, who directly involves the children in the action and so the opera begins.

This care for the quality of the children's experience, and the subtly involving music drama, kept the four- and five-year-olds of Stanley Primary in Ardrossan concentrating for a full hour.

Headteacher Lachlan Martin was delighted. "Many of our children have to survive on a cultural diet of commercial radio and television, so we were very keen to be involved with the SOFA residency," he says. "If anyone doubts the validity of putting on work of this quality for children as young as this, just let them see their close attention and total enjoyment."

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