Jane Davidson

29th June 2012 at 01:00
The director of education at Scottish Opera, which celebrated its 50th anniversary this month, discusses her early introduction to the art form, what children get from it and why she believes it's a huge social leveller. Interview by Julia Belgutay, Photography James Glossop

What was your own introduction to opera?

When I was a student I got a job as a dresser at the Theatre Royal (in Glasgow). I was 17 or 18 and I got to paint men's bums gold. It was for Cavalli's L'Egisto. I remember a man walking towards me in a very small nappy, saying "I can do everything else, but I can't do my bum cheek", so I sort of patted at him with a powder-puff thing. It was mortifying. I did opera and ballet and theatre, and the opera stayed with me. I hadn't done music at school or anything.

Do you think it is getting more difficult to get children interested in opera?

I think the challenges are different. There are more ways into it. The art form of opera is a complete boon to integrated learning.

Is there a perfect age for children being exposed to it?

Yes. In the womb. The effect of the human classically trained voice - I have seen it on six-month-old babies' faces - is amazing.

Do you think schools are doing enough to get children passionate about music?

No, I would join in with everybody else who is saying, "Please, God, don't cut back on music education any more than you have already done." What is happening in terms of Higher music worries me as well - things like the idea of not needing to have the basics any more. I think we need to be careful about the way we teach instruments, as well, with things like Wiis - the instant gratification of, "Look, I can play the guitar." I don't think it has the same soul, the discipline or the emotional connection. I don't see how you can have an emotional connection with an iPad.

What do you think exposure to opera can bring children that other music lessons cannot?

What lies absolutely at the heart of it is a good story well told, and there is nothing like it. When opera is bad, it's dreadful, but when it's good it's better than anything else. The emotive and intellectual impact of seeing all of that unfold in front of you is really powerful.

How many children do you reach every year with your education work?

I think we are sitting at round about 40,000. We are the oldest education unit of any opera house in Europe - we started 41 years ago.

Looking back on your work, what do you think has been your most effective educational programme?

I think the most successful is the primary schools programme. It's the oldest one. It has changed in some ways massively over the years, but it is completely integrated into the curriculum and it is still actually about any bunch of up to 100 kids at any school who learn songs in advance and dress up on the day and have a really good time. They think that's what opera is, and I am not going to disagree with them, actually. The rest of it is just semantics.

What is the reaction of teachers and pupils in the most deprived areas you visit - do they get opera?

There isn't a great deal of difference across the spectrum. It's a huge leveller, and for a lot of children it's a self-worth thing, as well. People really value the brand name of the opera, because if it is elitist, then the flip side of that is: "I might just go to an ordinary little primary school, or live in a really deprived community, but here is the opera company coming to work with me - maybe I'm not that worthless."

How do we rid opera of its elitist image - do we need to?

No. I have now come round to thinking that if elitist means good quality and all of the things that relate to that, then I am quite happy for it to be called that. I genuinely don't think there is anything wrong with celebrating excellence, provided that's the connotation that comes out of it, and it is not the one that I appreciate could equally well be the case, of "This is not for you because you're not good enough." I would like to go, "This is quite select, it's for you - you."

What are you looking forward to most this year?

I am completely over-excited about all of it. I'm really excited about Baby Elephant. How could you do better than a baby elephant and kiddies? It's like Dumbo without the really sad bits. It's the story of Sheila, the baby elephant, and it has been turned into a one-act opera. I thought, "What if we created a piece that had the capacity to involve primary school children in a proper theatre show, and what if we tour around and slot a new group of children into every performance? And what if we have another group of kids that we involve in all the other aspects - like writing press releases and marketing, front of housing and making parsnip scones?"

What is your favourite aria?

I hate to say it, but it's probably Vissi d'arte (from Puccini's Tosca). I love the idea of somebody who lives for art. I love the frivolity and the high maintenance of her, but also her genuine "touching-ness". I also really love Hansel and Gretel as a piece and I adore the music from that.

Are you a singer yourself?

No. You would pay me not to sing.


Born: Norfolk, 1961

Education: Murray Primary and Claremont High, East Kilbride; English literature and theatre studies, University of Glasgow

Career: English and drama teacher, worked with Scottish Opera since 1984; director of education for Scottish Opera since 2005.

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