Children march to tunes of the opera house

20th July 2001 at 01:00
Scottish Opera for All's summer schools are becoming an event for families to plan their holidays around. This year almost 400 children are involved in the two weeks; the Glasgow school which ended last Friday with a performance in the Theatre Royal has been followed by a week in Edinburgh that finishes in the Festival Theatre. The repertoire, directors, orchestra and props are identical for both weeks. The organisation is smooth and efficient, as befits the oldest education unit of any opera house in Europe, celebrating its 30th anniversary with a double-bill of premi res.

This year the casts are divided by age, with the eight to 10-year-olds performing Market Forces, specially commissioned from Karen MacIver. The composer and music educationist is in her 16th year with SOFA.

The opera recalls one of the highlights in SOFA history, when head of education Jane Davidson and MacIver visited Barbados in 1993 to work with Bajan primary teachers. Then it was a story set in the market place. Now lyricist Allan Dunn gives it a British context and a moral: a family win a Caribbean holiday in a television game show, only to discover that all that glisters is not gold.

The unique quality of the SOFA education experience is that it trains people to high levels of expressive arts work and then presents them with all the pomp and finery of the opera house. The stage lighting bathes them in atmosphere, the orchestra lets fly with the rhythms of the Caribbean and designer Helen Keenan fills the stage with costumes that match the vibrancy of the youthful cast, who clearly have been imbued with confidence by director Elena Goodman.

After the interval, the 11 to 13-year-olds take to the stage in Oliver's Army, created by lyricist Dunn and composer Alan Penman. It cheerfully enters a conspicuously no-go area for children's theatre - republicanism and the religious wars in Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries - and cleverly cross-cuts between the plain talk of the long-suffering people and the marching songs of the armies.

What a difference a year in age can make! The stronger voices, concentration and maturer discipline all help director Maria Miller bring off a superbly accomplished production.

Even so, the word is that the experiment of two age-groups will be abandoned and SOFA will return to mixing, so helpful is it for the older children to support the younger ones.

Brian Hayward Scottish Opera for All, tel 0141 248 4567; www.scottishopera.org.uk

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