A fight at the opera

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Brian Hayward reports on an all singing, all dramatic struggle between the bacterial goodies and baddies

It is afternoon. In the primary school hall an opera is being performed with a cast of 100 before an audience of almost 300.

If the opportunity arises, it will be done again tomorrow in another primary, and in another the day after, and likewise on every day of the school week from now until the end of June.

So far, the company has agreed to put on the show in more than 100 primaries. This is an extraordinary venture, though for Scottish Opera For All it is no more than the day job.

Fever!, commissioned from composer Alan Penman with lyrics by Allan Dunn, tells the story of a boy struck down by a mystery illness, but also sets out to teach some basic human biology and the nature of viruses and bacteria.

At the same time it reminds us of the symbiosis in Scottish education between primary schools and the performing arts groups that have learnt to thrive in the gap between educational need and the lack of specialist arts teachers.

Nowhere is this more happily evident than at Netherlee Primary in Glasgow, where a visit from the company is timetabled for P6 pupils every year. "We build it into the curriculum," says headteacher Sandra Mitchell. "In fact, the children look forward to going up to P6 because they know Sofa will be coming.

"They expect to have a lot of fun doing it, but the teachers see the benefits of the collaborative learning and the individual self-confidence.

And then there is the community building within the school, with the parents in the audience, along with P7s and P5s, who are consolidating their own experience with Sofa."

She is full of praise for the help the company gives her staff and for its organisation, which has been honed to a smooth efficiency by years of experience.

Two months before the day of the visit, the school received the education pack, which included health teaching materials, the score, the words and a vocals CD to help teachers teach the songs to the children.

A fortnight before the big day, Roger Glass, Sofa's vocal specialist, came to put the singing into the opera context so that on the day of the performance the team of singers and drama specialists could go straight into rehearsals with the recorded soundtrack.

Opera people need a ruder health than most of us, and rehearsing with 100 excited children every morning calls for some crowd control skills. Indeed, the discipline required by the performing arts is too often overlooked, though it surely would not be by anyone who witnessed Lissa Lorenzo quieten a gym full of children, buzzing with the delirium of wearing stage costume, merely by raising her hand.

Either the United States is inescapable these days, or Penman and Dunn are looking for a Broadway transfer, but certainly their hospital story comes with a strong transatlantic flavour, the good bacteria are got up as red-shirted, all-American footballers and cheer-leaders to oppose the bad bacteria, portrayed as urban terrorists in flak trousers and head bands.

The rival gangs are kept apart by an immune system of New York police officers, with peaked caps and dark glasses.

The crowd of journalists in trilbies and raincoats, besieging the hospital with their notebooks, microphones and flash cameras, reminds the children of the role of the media in alerting the public to danger, as well as their scare-mongering, sensational headlines and intrusive doorstepping.

They are held at bay by a crowd of doctors, lab technicians and nurses who help bass Alan McKenzie and baritone Laurie McNicol to treat the fever-struck youth with a pantomime-size syringe full of antibiotic.

Their prescribed dose is 10cc, a prescription that probably owes more to the authors' musical taste than to clinical practice. And looking at the score, I notice that the musical direction for the entry of the bad bacteria is "hard rock, Led Zeppelin style". Neither of these influences is intrusive in a versatile score that is by turns dramatic and melodious and always fun to sing.

The climactic drama comes in the boxing match between the patient (the Netherlee Primary boy is no mean performer) and the Big Bad Bacteria.

Sofa's expert crowd controllers swiftly conjure up a boxing ring and surround it with rival supporters and the press corps. A voice-over on the soundtrack gives the preliminary ring announcements and then orchestrates the crowd's sound-picture for the see-saw contest that ends in a knockout for the Big Bad Bacteria. The audience of children, teachers and parents were knocked out, too.

Sofa, tel 0141 242 0563email marie.king@scottishopera.org.uk

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