Compose yourself

9th March 2007 at 00:00
How do you use antiseptic to stimulate pupils to write an opera? Stephen Manning finds out

It's doubtful that the smell of TCP inspired any of Mozart's great operas.

But all art starts somewhere and a whiff of antiseptic was all it took to get the pupils at West Minster School thinking about subjects for their own grand production.

The primary on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent is on what looks like the most demanding arts project imaginable - to compose and stage an opera in the space of a year. Having discussed ideas, pupils write the libretto, compose the music, design the sets, costumes and lighting, look after publicity and even book the transport to their final performance. They will make all the decisions -the teacher is merely the facilitator, the "scaffolding and construction".

The school is one of 24 primaries from London and Kent on this year's Royal Opera House Creative Teachers programme, which trains them how to get their pupils to write an opera from scratch. Christine Adams, West Minster's music teacher, is guiding the school through its second.

The starting point is a stimulus - in this case the smell of TCP. "The children were blindfolded and I asked them what that smell made them think of," says Christine.

"After a lot of discussion, they came up with a dirty person, or perhaps a person who was injured and needing help. It led to characterisation, which formed a basic story involving a mother and son going on holiday and meeting various people who are not exactly what they appeared to be."

Unusually, West Minster is working on movement first before any music is composed. David Stevenson, Royal Opera House education course leader, visited the school in January to assist the 40 Year 4 pupils in telling the story through movement.

The music, mostly percussion with violin and guitar, will be composed by Easter, with small groups working on different sections. Then they will begin to assemble the opera company, with non-performers applying for roles such as stage manager and publicity manager.

This is the school's second attempt at an opera. Last year's work was based on a misunderstanding in the playground. Not a great challenge costume-wise, but pupils' approach to the set was emotion-based rather than naturalistic, with large boards featuring big eyes with tears or smiles.

"What we say at the outset is that it's not about coming up with a work to rival La Boh me," says Paul Reeve, director of education at the Royal Opera House.

"Opera is really a vehicle to explore a cross-disciplinary approach. In essence, it is a mix of words, music, drama and design. Not many art forms cover as much ground."

Primary schools can be well suited to such a project. The greater logistical challenge is to apply this cross-disciplinary approach to secondaries - which is something the Creative Teachers programme has done for the first time this year, selecting five performing arts or music colleges in Cornwall.

It is a suitable place for such an experiment. "We are remote and do not get a lot of big bands or orchestras coming to visit, apart from the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. So the region has a history of making its own entertainment," says Simeon Royle, assistant head and director of music at one of the five schools, Humphry Davy School, a specialist music college in Penzance.

Humphry Davy is the third most deprived school in Cornwall, with a quarter of its pupils on free school meals. It is what you might call a genuinely comprehensive area - lots of bohemians, and also a large population of pupils with no motivation.

Simeon believes the programme is ideal, even for non-performers. "If they want to get involved in building the sets, they have to learn woodwork," he says. Some schools will take a more modern approach, which purists might question, but that's the idea.

"We introduce operatic convention and terminology to the kids, via the teachers," says Paul. "For example, an aria is a solo song about what an individual is feeling. Well, that could easily be a description of a pop song. How they interpret this is up to them."

The main message of Creative Teachers is that opera is far more accessible than the average child might expect. "Kids will write about what they know," says Paul.

"Falling in and out of friendship, trust, betrayal, and even playground politics. These are really the great operatic themes. It is all about the human condition."



The Creative Teachers programme is an extension of Write an Opera, the Royal Opera House's annual, week-long training course on which teachers, mainly primary, learn methods and techniques to take back into the classroom. The cost of the course is pound;350.

The Creative Teachers programme has run for the past five years and targets specific schools. Teachers are trained in August and the following July all the schools participate in showcases at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio Theatre.

Teachers do not need a musical background to go on the course.

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