A tale of two opera companies

24th July 1998 at 01:00
Brian Hayward looks at the success of Scottish Opera For All in bringing opera to a wider - and much younger - audience

If ever a comparison jumped up and hit you on the forehead, like stepping on a garden rake, it would be between two opera education companies. In the same fortnight that the Royal Opera House, with what seems like studied contempt, sacked its education officer on her first morning, and gave her brief to marketing, Scottish Opera for All notches up a resounding success with its first summer school, hot on the heels of its rapturously-received residency in Northern Ireland.

For the first of what Jane Davidson (project director of Scottish Opera For All) hopes will be an annual event, the company created three operas in the fortnight.

The first week saw 60 children in the Scottish Opera Centre in Edington Street, Glasgow, kitted out in cavalry coats, Indian feathers and cowboy hats for Way Out West, SOFA's cheery, tuneful plea for peaceful co-existence.

The second week drew another 130 children for performances on-stage in the Theatre Royal, no less, of the double-bill of 1719 (based on a little-known episode from Jacobite times) and The Sands of Time, where people travel back to Ancient Egypt, and learn something of the futility of war through the eyes of the Assyrians. In the interests of truth, it was not exactly "another 130 children" - 25 of them enjoyed the first week so much they came back for more.

Most of them were paying from Pounds 30 per week for the experience, though in a ground-breaking partnership between Scottish Opera and two Castlemilk development agencies, 48 children had their fees paid for them. This link-up with Castlemilk highlights the crusading zeal that energises SOFA, though it would be a mistake to think that its aim was narrowly missionary, class-ridden, or that it measured its achievement in box office returns.

Among the hundreds of parents, friends and relatives coming in for the final performances, there would by many new both to the Theatre Royal and to a programme by Scottish Opera. To give them a hint of what they may be missing, SOFA used backdrops from Samson and Delilah (pyramids and sand) and The Jacobin (death and mayhem) for scenery. In these ways and others, the company is making new friends. There is, however, more to it than that. As good teachers know, when a child is committed to a learning experience, the results are not easily measured.

So the "expert tuition in music, singing, drama, dance and the visual arts" offered by SOFA can be a means as well as an end. A vein of Davidson's educational theory is that social education, like morality, cannot be taught at desks, but more by the emulation of role models and the realisation of group advantage. For her, the sympathetic manners of the newly-graduated teachers from St Andrews College (who acted as chaperones) were as much part of the personal education as the arts work itself.

Drama is one of the best of team games, according to Davidson, because the effect depends on everyone being right at the same time.

Of course the achievers help the strugglers; after all, they have to rely on them. Individually, too, there are battles to be won. A schoolteacher parent with theatre experience was full of appreciation for the friendly but business-like SOFA approach that rescued his son from his shyness and memories of an unproductive time with another youth arts organisation, so much so that he was one of those coming back for a second week.

Then, again, education is a two-way affair, and Davidson is delighted with the way the summer school became the catalyst for a bonding experience for the company at large, in its relaxed, out-of-season mode. In the first place, there were the company members who bought places for their own children. Then there were the administrative staff at Edington Street, who heard the songs coming through the walls every day, dropped in to see the final performance, and learned something about the SOFA's work.

Back in Hope Street, there was general surprise at the sight of a department of Scottish Opera, apparently not famous for its willingness to go the extra mile, giving freely of its time and work to help the children. "Lambs in wolves' clothing," snorts Davidson.

I think the Royal Opera House should be told.

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