Ancient Greece rebuilt in a day

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Scottish Opera For All is engaging pupils in a full-scale, cross-curricular show based on the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Brian Hayward reports.

While Scottish Opera has been making the front pages of the newspapers with stories about its money management, the knighthood for music director Richard Armstrong and the South Bank Show award for the Ring Cycle, its education and youth work has been going on its quiet way in schools up and down the country. Not, however, for much longer.

Scottish Opera For All has for more than 30 years pioneered workshop opera education for young people. Now supremo Jane Davidson is about to see the realisation of another ambition, ScotOp's first full-length, main theatre opera for young people.

Called The Minotaur, it dramatises the story of Theseus, one of the more eventful and layered legends from ancient Greece. At the end of the summer term the opera will begin its tour of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Inverness. Until then SOFA is using the score and libretto for its customary style of "an opera in a day" performance experience.

Between January and June this year, SOFA will visit 100 schools, engaging 10,000 schoolchildren aged eight to 14 in a day's rehearsal that ends with a full-scale show for parents and friends of the school.

Of course, to call it a day's work is to overlook the preparations that the school has to make, not least in learning the music.

At Abronhill High in Cumbernauld, music teacher Colin Carruthers was impressed with the way the S1s had risen to the challenge of mastering the choruses.

"It is difficult singing for them, very challenging," he says. "Julian Evans, the composer, writes in modern rhythms and uses atonality. The young ones found it strange at first, but I knew that when they got more familiar with the music they would begin to derive pleasure and benefit."

Though the music was paramount, other departments were involved. Margaret Amos, a teacher of English with a special interest in drama (she will direct the school production of Grease in June) was able to incorporate Theseus into the unit "Monsters in Myth and Legend", history focused on ancient Greece, and the art department helped the children make some of the props and costumes they needed. It was this collaborative aspect that delighted headteacher Margaret McCallum.

"The best single thing for the secondary school is this chance to make links across the curriculum, for the departments to work in a common cause.

The children really appreciate the way it makes their work more coherent.

"From the teaching point of view it is especially valuable to share these four SOFA workers. They have what good teachers have - they have presence.

They offer a change of pace and style. The kids go back to single subjects with renewed interest," she says.

"We are lucky at Abronhill to have an identifiable community, but the downside is that the children can become insular and inward-looking. That is why we are so pleased that SOFA brings a cultural enrichment that works at an individual and group level.

"Collectively the kids identify with the Minoans, Athenians and Heroes.

This allows, even demands, that they hurl themselves into the dressing-up and singing with joy and pleasure, which brings status and self-esteem.

SOFA makes opera a 'can do' thing; nobody fails."

SOFA does it by example, endless encouragement, a lot of shouting, and then a lot more shouting. Lesley Workman, who leads the drama work, demonstrates a larynx of steel as she cajoles the 110 excited chorus people through their stage movements.

And although the day lasts from 9.30am to after 3pm, neither their excitement nor her stentorian commands seem to flag.

She is well supported by Mark Kidd, who somehow has landed both the plum roles of Ariadne and the Minotaur. The latter is a gift from the ScotOp property department - a huge black bull that takes six children to walk it, fronted by Kidd in the bull mask with its gilded Minoan horns and baleful red eyes.

It is the centrepiece of the spectacle that confronts the parents when they arrive for the performance. All the cast are in chitons, terracotta for the Minoans, aquamarine for the Athenians, with their laurel chaplets and white for the Heroes.

Massed in their three groups, they act and sing the story of the war between Athens and Crete, of the sailing of the Athenian youths, the journey into the labyrinth, the slaying of the Minotaur and the disastrous return voyage.

The stylised performance contrasts sharply with the colloquial, jokey dialogue that links it, but that just adds to the fun.

Scottish Opera For All, tel: 0141 332 9559,

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