An education action zone in inner London is showcasing its state-of-the-art computer network with a world first: a 'virtual' opera broadcast live on the internet. Harvey McGavin reports
Just outside the window of the second-floor staffroom of Copenhagen primary school in London's King's Cross, fixed to the wall with a bracket, there's a white metal box. It looks like a CCTV camera, but instead of being directed down into the playground, it's pointing almost horizontally.
"Look!" says Peter Barrett, gesturing towards a neighbouring school.
"There's another one over there." He's right - a couple of hundred yards away, there's an identical box on the wall, pointing straight back at this one.
Peter Barrett, ICT project manager for King's Cross education action zone in the borough of Islington, has the kind of hardware that most ICT teachers can only dream about. He may come across as a down-to-earth sort of bloke, but the facilities at his disposal are out of this world. Never mind broadband, Copenhagen school is the hub of a network that is 200 times faster. The boxes contain infrared lasers, capable of transmitting data at 100 megabytes a second. There are five of them dotted around the exterior of the school, trained on the other schools in the action zone, which all lie within half a mile, and crucially for a network like this to operate successfully, all have a sightline to the school.
This, Mr Barrett is convinced, is the future. Not only that, it works. In July, Copenhagen school hosted an event the likes of which has not been seen anywhere in the world before - a virtual opera broadcast live on the internet. This production of Carmen bore all the classic elements of Bizet's tragic love story, performed by singers from the school and English Pocket Opera Company (Epoc), and an orchestra from the nearby Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school (the only secondary in the zone) in Copenhagen's main hall.
But it also departed from tradition in a radical way - the live action was supplemented by scenes from other schools, performed and filmed by children and beamed live, via the lasers, on to a bank of three large plasma screens behind the stage. Visually, the show is amazing, with the action switching between the stage and images of children's paintings or live sequences on the screens. It's a creatively updated version, set in outer space, and with some of the story told via text messages between Carmen and Don Jose.
And it is uplifting to see an art form stereotyped as elitist being performed with such gusto by a bunch of inner-city kids. As they leave the stage following a final, rousing rendition of the "Toreador Song", there are whoops of delight from the cast.
To appreciate the complexity and scale of the production, you have to go behind the scenes - up the stairs to the control room in a converted top floor classroom of the school - and rewind a couple of days. Andy Davies, the media resource manager, is trying to edit a recorded sequence of Epoc's Darren Fox, who plays Don Jose, which will appear as a duet, with Carmen (Harriet Williams) singing live. "The thing is," he says, "nobody knows how anything is going to work because it's never been done before. Our attitude is, if it sounds like a good idea, let's go for it. There's none of this 'Oh, we can't do that'."
Before him, there is a bank of half a dozen monitors, which will be the live feeds from the other schools - with children, rehearsed and ready, waiting for their cue; this will be the mixing desk for the transmission. A whiteboard screen on the wall shows an audience-eye view of the hall downstairs. There are laptops, cameras and bits of equipment everywhere.
The atmosphere is slightly chaotic, a bit last-minute, but exciting. Mr Barrett picks up a camera, flicks a few switches and a picture of the room appears on the screen downstairs. "It's mind-blowing, isn't it?" he laughs.
Once it had decided to make new technology the bedrock of its efforts to raise standards, set up the high-speed link, bought the equipment and trained the teachers, the EAZ was left in a slight quandary.
"The big question for us was, now we've created this new tool, how are we going to use it?" says EAZ chief Derek Smith. He wanted to start with a big event, maybe a concert. But Epoc, a performing company with a strong educational mission, had been in the area doing some of its "Hotpot" workshops, fun introductions to opera for children, so he suggested the two organisations team up.
Year 6 pupils in each primary wrote a scene, made costumes, designed sets, choreographed dance routines and painted pictures inspired by the story, as well as discussing its still relevant themes of moral choices and racial conflict. And, of course, they learnt to sing - very loudly. Even though her school has been "virtually" taken over in the run-up to the performance, Copenhagen's headteacher Lindsey Jackson says it has been a wonderful experience. "It's a really nice way for them to finish their time at the school," she says. "They'll never forget it. Once Epoc had done their show to explain what opera was about, they were sold on it. I never dreamed it would be as big as this. Initially when we looked at the idea, everything was going to be done on whiteboards, but things just got bigger and bigger."
Luckily, Copenhagen school's high ceilings and large classrooms were able to accommodate the project's expansion.
Having six schools performing simultaneously from six different locations, synchronised into a single spectacle and streamed live over the internet has never been attempted before. The unique nature of the project has attracted support and help in kind from around two dozen "friends and sponsors" with loans of equipment and webspace, which has helped to keep costs down. If the virtual opera was a showcase for the action zone's high-speed network, and a curtain-raiser to demonstrate its capabilities, the next phase of the project will be to incorporate it into the school's everyday life and to use it as a way of raising achievement. Already schools have experimented with videoconferencing maths lessons for gifted and talented pupils at each school, and there have been multilingual storytelling performances.
The pupils need no convincing of its benefits. "We have given children the chance to use this new technology and they are now very confident and competent with it," says Mr Barrett. "The perception of children and their parents has been very positive because they realise that it will help them to get jobs."
The third phase will be to enable more public access - something that has already started with the opening of Platform One, an impressively equipped community facility in the grounds of Elizabeth Garrett Anderson school.
Phil Walker, head of Platform One, says that when Derek Smith suggested the idea of a virtual opera "we all thought he was a bit barmy. Some colleagues thought it gimmicky. Now they are bowled over by the potential."
When Bizet finished Carmen in 1875, poor reviews left him distraught. Yet it went on to become one of the best known and most loved operatic works of all time. Nearly 130 years later, his story of jealous love has provided a harmonious vision of technology and education working together. And this time, when the curtain came down, the reviews were all positive.
The virtual opera: www.carmenavalook.comEnglish Pocket Opera Company 0207 263 3019Platform 1: www.platform1.info HOW TO MAKE IT HAPPEN
Two hundred and fifty children from Copenhagen, Blessed Sacrament RC, St Andrews C of E, Vittoria and Winton primary schools, and Elizabeth Garret Anderson secondary worked with the English Pocket Opera Company and King's Cross education action zone.
The world's first virtual opera, combining live, recorded and remote performances, broadcast live on the internet.
Funding of pound;27,500 from the NationalEndowment for Science, Technology and the Arts and help in kind from supporters including Groovy Gecko, who streamed the event on to the internet, Canon, Xchanging, Global Leap, the London Grid for Learning.
Once set up, the laser network has minimal running costs; schools are looking at ways of developing content and encouraging community use. From September, Epoc will be working with 60 London schools and 120 schools nationwide.