Open your eyes to glory of opera

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Opera is not just about large ladies and men singing their hearts out; in fact you don't have to sing at all, as one teenage fan found out. James Allen reports

A few years ago, Katie Nixon, aged 15, would not have entertained the idea of going to an opera. It is not that she thought they were too posh or too expensive to go to but musicals were her thing and she was quite happy to leave it at that.

However, since going to the second National Youth Opera Event, held at the Royal Opera House in London in July, her eyes and ears have been opened to the art form and this autumn she plans to see Scottish Opera's production of Mozart's The Magic Flute (on tour from October).

What excites Katie, an S4 pupil at Loudoun Academy in Galston, East Ayrshire, is how opera is put together, how character is created and fitted into the drama. That is what absorbed her in London.

She does not want to be an opera star but says you can be involved even if you are not a singer. "I thought that I would never manage to be in an opera; I can't sing," she says, "but they have mute opera singers who are on stage and act."

Katie was one of three teenagers from Scotland to go on the course, which was organised by six leading British opera companies, including Scottish Opera, and funded by them. It brought together 70 14- to 18-year-olds from across Britain for two days of workshops and discussion with various professionals.

As well as choral singing and musical improvisation, the teenagers played games which gave them an idea of the multi-skills required in opera. These included singing in pairs with a rod balanced between their chests, copying another person's movements while answering maths questions, and walking around, passing parcels while singing at the same time.

The workshops focused on Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which gave plenty of scope for participants to devise characters for the ballroom scene in Act II for Tatyana's birthday party. Katie played a 62-year-old man.

The world-renowned American director Peter Sellars motivated them with an inspirational lecture. It transformed the way Katie thought about opera, she says.

"He was excellent. There were 70 kids there and everybody was silent, just listening. He was so charismatic.

"He was explaining how opera doesn't show what we want the world to be like, it shows what the world is and tries to explain how we can make it better. That's why opera is so important."

Katie's operatic odyssey started three years ago when her school participated in Scottish Opera For All's Wagner education programme for secondary schools, sponsored by the Bank of Scotland. It enters its final round of workshops this autumn, just after the company's hugely successful and critically acclaimed Ring cycle draws to a conclusion.

The Wagner project covers four curricular areas: music, drama, art and design and English. "Opera is a writing genre in its own right," explains Rachel Swanick, education assistant with Scottish Opera For All. "It is also about the visual element, the music and the words and how they are put together with the drama. That's why people get excited about it as an art form, because it has everything."

Education packs for GotterdAmmerung, the final opera of the Ring cycle, will soon be sent to schools taking part in the programme. About 600 S4 pupils in North and South Lanarkshire, Glasgow and East Ayrshire will study the opera under the headings of society, context and culture. One module has the pupils writing a letter either for or against allowing the rap artist Eminem to perform in a local venue. The task gets them to address the idea of freedom of expression in music.

"If you ask a lot of children 'What's opera?'," says Ms Swanick, "they will either say it's a fat woman in a horned helmet, because that is the Tom and Jerry cartoon of opera, or they will say that it's three blokes in evening suits standing and singing, because they've seen the Three Tenors. That's not what opera is."

That is something Katie and her friends well know.

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