How the West was sung

16th May 1997 at 01:00
A production for primary schools is part of a project to make opera more accessible. Brian Hayward reports

Some eight-year-olds have every excuse to feel confused. Their school takes them to the pantomime, where a comedian tells them opera is boring - I heard it myself in two theatres last Christmas. A few months later the school brings in Scottish Opera For All, and pupils find it the most fun you can have in a scarlet dress or with feathers in your headband.

The good-time girls and native Americans form the chorus in Way Out West, one of two mini-operas written by David Munro for Scottish Opera's current tour for primary schools. The rest of the company consists of the cavalry and other frontier folk. They sing to pre-recorded keyboard and live piano a story of saloon, gold rush and sacred land, in which militarism comes off decidedly worst.

At Dunrobin Primary School in Airdrie, North Lanarkshire, deputy head Marilyn Ross spells out the school's curriculum strengths, while marshalling the cast of 124 and organising chairs for the parent audience. The classes have spent six weeks learning "the fabulous tunes" from tapes sent by Scottish Opera, making the optional costume extras, and ticking off two novels (Children of the Oregon Trail and Little House on the Prairie) from the Reading 2000 programme.

She is enthusiastic for a project that involves all of Primary 4-7. It opens doors to team teaching and leads to a performance in front of Primary 1-3 and any interested parents. Her enthusiasm is obviously shared by the cast, who have rehearsed the songs and stage movements all morning.

After lunch, the costume hampers are unpacked, and the excitement screwed a few notches higher. The cavalry blue, the Clint Eastwood longcoats and Sioux suits took up most of the Pounds 4,000 Scottish Opera laid out, and was a shrewd investment. Everything now depends on the bullying charms of the music specialist and the three actorsingers in the Opera For All company.

Chief of these is Tim Settle. Scottish Opera has recruited actors rather than teachers. The rigid discipline they demand is of the theatre rather than the classroom, although the children could be forgiven for failing to spot the difference.

They have much to remember. The songs come with choreographed gesture, naturalistic and expressive, and all to be done on the beat. Each of the three groups has an actorleader, who sits among the audience. The children are endlessly cajoled to "watch and concentrate", even when facing the distraction of a costumed crowd, with your family watching and your shoulder-strap slipping.

But the Scottish Opera team knows its business, and somehow goads and charms half a school into performing the musical in a way that satisfies every- body. For Mr Munro, the "robust" discipline matters. "When they watch shows on television," he says, "I want them to know how much work goes into them. Better still, they know they can be the performance, not just spectators."

The work is part of a unique rolling programme in primary and secondary schools and community centres, educating a suspicious nation in the ways of opera. The form has never been really "British" - maybe because our aristocracy preferred art it could put on its walls or in its attics. In contrast, Mr Munro is just back from a meeting of the European Network of Opera Education Departments in Paris, where "the opera house was full of ordinary people".

The French and other continentals, who find going to the opera as natural as eating, raise an eyebrow at the need for people such as Mr Munro to cajole us into enjoying ourselves. Another blow for musical Eurosceptics is learning that the big seven British opera companies met through the European network. Now their educationists meet regularly and, realising they are allies and not competitors, are sharing ideas and resources.

Not that David Munro need worry about the work going away - devolved school management means schools can book the company year after year. At Dunrobin, after cheers for the janitor, the teachers, the impromptu percussion band and the school, the headteacher called for one for the Scottish Opera team, adding the words the company likes to hear: "It has been their first visit, but not their last."

Scottish Opera For All will do a workshop on Way Out West at Corstorphine Primary School, Edinburgh, on May 22.

Scottish Opera For All, tel: 0141 248 4567

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