Nativity play

8th December 2000 at 00:00
Icons of the Nativity.

Rosehill Theatre, Whitehaven

December 9

On the eve of a strange encounter between karaoke, opera and a baby, Elaine Williams reports

Under a night sky, on top of the hill where the Rosehill Theatre looks out over Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast, car horns are blaring and a stunned and confused crowd is caught in the glare of headlights as a soprano soars.

It is a far cry from the more familiar school Nativity scene of tinselled angels addressing tea-towelled shepherds about the glory of a birth, but it is an acclamation just the same. This extraordinary cacophony, performed by parents in their cars, is the intended overture to Icons of the Nativity, to be performed tomorrow night by three of the town's primary schools under the tutelage of the Karaoke Opera Company. Once inside the ornate but intimate space of the Rosehill, the audience will continue to have its expectations of the Nativity thwarted. There is no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds or kings. Instead, Year 5 pupils from Bransty primary flounce on stage and let rip with an almighty scream, then a hum, followed by a crackle as Luke Harrington, nine, eats crisps into a microphone.

At one point, children from Moresby primary clumsily erect an igloo-shaped tent ("no room at the inn") while Years 5 and 6 from Lowca primary entertain with funky dancing, bringing characters from their Playstations alive.

Later, Tracey Cadman, the opera singer who accompanies the car horns, sings a lament while a parent changes a nappy. A second lament is echoed by the sweet, breathy voice of nine-year-old Bransty pupil Simone Roche, while her peers swaddle themselves in layers of jumble sale rejects and cradle "babies" made from rolled-up rags.

In the middle of this intense 30-minute "opera", the curtains close and pupils make toast and popcorn at the back of the auditorium while the audience listens to recordings of children talking about journeys they have made. One girl recalls being sick over a woman's white trainers during a trip to Disneyland, Paris. The piece ends with Quando Piangi Tu (When You Cry), a Puccini-esque aria sung by Cadman with pupils, teachers and parents.

The performance is a distillation of a term's work with the three schools by John Kefala-Kerr, composer and director of Karaoke Opera. During the project, funded by Copeland borough council at a cost of pound;9,000, pupils have explored the idea of opera, worked on voice projection with Cadman and explored the familiar Nativity symbols with the help of choreographer Paula Turner.

Although the structure of the performance was already defined by Kefala-Kerr and set out in a backing tape which runs throughout, he wanted the characters and idiosyncrasies of the children and their notions of opera and Nativity to be at the heart of the piece. He says: "I wanted the performance to be child-centred, to explore the idea of the chld, which society has commodified, linking this with the birth of the child Jesus, so we have the sacred image linked to the secular."

Bransty teacher Jane Hartley claims pupils have no difficulty with Kefala-Kerr's more esoteric concepts. She says: "They accept these ideas, they enjoy them. They don't worry about the whys and the wherefores of modern art in the way adults do." They had no difficulties, for example, in linking the ramshackle tent to the stable, or the players swaddled in cast-off clothes to the notion of outcasts and refugees. Most have limited experience of opera, but they relished the opportunity to make it. "I've never heard an opera singer live, and I used to think it was just loud, not this kind of fun," says Luke Harrington.

Despite its improvised quality, Kefala-Kerr is determined that the performance will have professional polish. At one rehearsal, Cadman urges Bransty pupils, a notoriously lively bunch, to concentrate. "One of the things about making a really big sound," she tells pupils, "is that you have to keep your voices straight and together. Remember what I told you about your breathing. Keep your energy up." Little by little, sound and timing improve. Stephen Atkinson, nine, approves of the discipline. "John's really bothered about the play and I think he's right to be," he says.

Kefala-Kerr founded the Karaoke Opera Company as a research project five years ago when he was a senior lecturer in music at the University of Northumbria. "I'm attempting to redefine musical theatre, to make people think about what they are watching. Karaoke closes the gap between performer and audience. Opera is hierarchical; the gap between those who do and those who watch is huge. Karaoke Opera provides an umbrella for exploring these notions."

The Rosehill Theatre is a perfect venue for such exploration. In its kitsch ornateness, it meets traditional expectations of how an opera house should look. Yet perched on a hill above the faded Georgian trading port of Whitehaven, it presides over an isolated community with high unemployment. Pupils who have limited access to the arts have had "their melodramatic sensibilities unlocked", says Kefala-Kerr. "When I told them they were going to sing opera they were horrified, but when I told them to beg their teacher for less homework and to then get down on their knees and sing it, they had no problems. We spent quite a time making 30-second operas in this way."

Some of these mini-operas will be performed before the show while the audience is offered fruit cocktails called "Pavarotti" and "diva lagoon". Chris Rafferty, acting head of Lowca primary, says: "There's been such a buzz among pupils when they work with John. Just as the Nativity is about the awakening of Christianity, so this play has been about the awakening of possibilities for these children."

John Kefala-Kerr's website:

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