Having a ball with Cinderella opera

27th January 2006 at 00:00
Ugly sisters and tantrums aside, this production unifies singers from Russia and Scotland, reports Brian Hayward

Even before the plug was pulled on Scottish Opera, Glaswegian music lovers had made an exciting discovery: they only had to cross Hope Street to find high-class opera, and for half the usual cost.

At the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, splendid young singers from around the world, all mature students at the opera school, were singing for their careers, surrounded by all the talents of the music college and drama production courses.

This was gourmet entertainment, and performances at New Athenaeum theatre were sold out weeks before curtain up.

Audiences were delighted and, one night, that included a couple of dignitaries from the St Petersburg Conservatoire, visiting the RSAMD in the long-standing drift of staff and students between the two organisations.

They liked it so much they invited the production back to Russia. The RSAMD thought about it and came up with a better, and financially more prudent, idea: the two conservatoires would collaborate in a joint production.

That was two years ago, and what followed was months of tortuous, baffling and occasionally almost door-slamming discussion. Partnerships with Russian artists are not easily made.

Timothy Dean, in his dual role as head of opera at RSAMD and conductor of the joint Scottish Opera and Academy orchestras, has worked hard on the collaboration. He confesses to being, at times, almost in despair of ever dissolving the invisible barriers of cultural difference that plagued even the mundane business of planning. Nevertheless, patience and the steady support of the sponsors, Scottish and Newcastle breweries, won the day.

Last November four student singers from St Petersburg came to prepare for their principal roles in the chosen opera, Cendrillon, Massenet's take on the traditional Cinderella story.

With the co-operation of Scottish Opera, it will not play in the intimate RSAMD theatre but in the "big houses" of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Then it is back to St Petersburg, but the prohibitive expense of transporting scenery means Russian audiences will only see concert versions.

Dean has a cautionary word for the home audience: "The work may seem slight and merely pretty at first sight, but we need to remember that it was written by a Frenchman, and French artists wear their serious side rather lightly.

"Fairy tales have a different place in their culture, and Massenet is able to venture into fantasy, very unlike Rossini's version. But if you dig under the skin of the story, it has all the seriousness of a rite of passage."

Scottish Opera For All knows that its trump card is being the education arm of Scotland's major performing company. On this occasion its classes are joined by the RSAMD junior classes and between them they have mustered 110 children aged 9 to 11.

This week they have been at the RSAMD, taking part in three workshops based on the Cendrillon production. Lissa Lorenzo, Sofa's drama leader, unpicks the story taken from the "original". Perrault, a member of the RSAMD music staff, introduces the music score, and the head of Sofa, Jane Davidson, explains the set design and costuming.

After lunch, the children go across the road to the Theatre Royal to see the opera performed. There they will do what many of us can only dream of: sing along with the artistes. Part of the morning's work will have been to learn the last chorus of the opera and from their seats in the stalls, they will give it laldy along with their elders and betters.

So what might the future hold in the way of more partnerships between the opera school and Scottish Opera? "Who can say?" is Timothy Dean's cagey reply.

"Scottish Opera's absence has been very lamentable, but they will be back in strength again soon. Meanwhile we carry on as usual in our own theatre, working towards our May production of Handel's Rinaldo."

RSAMD, tel 0141 270 8387www.rsamd.ac.ukScottish Opera, tel 0141 242 0511www.scottishopera.org.uk

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