More than a flirtation with opera

3rd November 2006 at 00:00
Scottish Opera's education arm has devised new courses to tie in with SQA exams in music, English and art and design, Brian Hayward reports

Changing name from Scottish Opera For All to Scottish Opera Education seems, if anything, to have sharpened the company's focus of its work for schools.

Certainly, its latest project, Die Fledermaus Unwrapped, is close to being an exemplary model of the way opera can be sewn into the closely woven fabric of the schools' examination system.

The Strauss operetta, with its catchy tunes and daft story - about confused identities, flirtations and revenge - only a street or two away from Mamma Mia!, finished a tour of "small theatres" last weekend.

Earlier in the week, at the Palace Theatre in Kilmarnock, the touring party had unwrapped its production, which had been swathed in football and celebrity. Director Lee Blakeley had updated the story by having Baron von Eisenstein as a gal ctico past his sell-by date and his wife Rosalinde and maid Ad le as a couple of "wags".

All this, however, had been carefully kept from the schools audience of almost 400, so that when Joanna Turner, the staff producer acting as presenter, asked what they expected to see, she got the predictable answer: fat ladies with high voices. Cue the characters and enter Eisenstein in football boots and Rosalinde with a pilates ball.

The point made, the company got down to the serious business of explaining how opera works. Oliver Rundell, the music director and pianist, talked about adapting the score and the singers' use of techniques such as staccato and legato. Two of the cast contrasted the original libretto (in translation) with the text they were using. And the negotiable difficulties of getting stage furniture into venues not normally used as theatres were made light of by stage manager Rose Anne Gross.

All this, and the singing highlights that followed, were only half of the "unwrapping". For two months, the Kilmarnock audience had been working on study units based on the operetta.

Almost a year ago, the SOE had commissioned working teachers to write the study units - resource sheets, teachers' notes and pupils' worksheets - for music, English and art and design. In every case, these are quality products, in content and presentation.

Philippa Dyet and David Lambert collaborated on a sparky, two-part music Higher Still unit. The first section is on musical literacy and concepts, with examination questions tailored to SQA needs; for the second, on composition, they were helped by former Sofa composer Karen MacIver.

"We thought this time we would add on to the straightforward Higher and do the bit that scares the teachers, the invention bit," she says. "It was an eye-opener for me. As a working composer, you take so much for granted. For me it was like trying to explain how to walk. My ideas were all right, but they had to be taken back about 100 steps before they would begin to make sense to Higher students."

Julie Laing contributed the units for General and Credit levels of Standard grade English, combining scrupulously formulated tasks and assessments with fun in her ideas for writing biographies. Her units are supportive to the learner, as well as contemporary and significant. For the evaluations section, she uses reviews from the more traditional production (19972002) by Giles Havergal (which no doubt was partly why Ms Turner got the stereotype answer she expected).

The art and design Standard grade unit is the work of Alan McMillan, who has been involved with Scottish Opera for several years. He not only designed it but also taught it to his Auchinleck Academy classes, who came to the Kilmarnock performance.

"Designing costumes and masks is something the students have to do," he says. "My class were quite complimentary about the design unit. Grange Academy, in Kilmarnock, said they found it very adaptable.

"I wouldn't say they are all converted to opera, but they have a good idea of what goes on in the industry. It is a good connection for our school. I would like very much to keep it up."

Scottish Opera Education, tel 0141 248 4567

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