East comes west - west London that is - in a school production of Puccini's fantastical masterpiece, with a little help from the Royal Opera House. Heather Neill reports
At school in south Wales, Dai Jones, now senior teacher at Villiers high school in Southall, west London, didn't have to think about whether or not he liked music - it was simply part of life. "We'd do Stabat Mater in school, listen to pop music at home and sing hymns on Sunday," he says. He found that things were different 20 or 30 years later for schoolchildren in England - music seemed peripheral or compartmentalised. One day last year, "in a moment of frustration" he phoned the Royal Opera House to ask if it ever worked with schools. Indeed it did, came the reply from Paul Reeve, education manager for the Royal Opera, and before long they had cooked up an innovative scheme between them.
It has been dubbed "the Bollywood project", but that is a simplified shorthand for something complicated and far-reaching that has involved large numbers of pupils (including some from Villiers's feeder primaries) and their families, as well as local businesses. Paul Reeve admits that "Bollywood" - the popular name for the prolific, Bombay-based Indian film industry - is "a good hook for students", but he wants to avoid having people think in terms of parody or pastiche. "This is the students' own telling of the story of Turandot," he says, "and includes film-making, choreography, drama, dance, music and singing." And, it turns out, fosters many other skills, such as fundraising, marketing, design and research.
It all began with an ROH "taster" workshop in the school last term, in which 360 Year 7, 8 and 9 pupils took part, with some children from the feeder schools. The opera professionals decided against conventional auditions for fear that some students would not turn up because they would assume they lacked relevant skills.
A series of workshops followed, introducing music, dance, drama and background to the opera. "There were surprises - especially for some of the kids, who didn't know they could sing or dance," says Dai Jones. "Then the production was built around as many as possible who showed inclination and skill - 114 performers, with many others in back-up roles." Three Year 8 English classes were set the task of writing the libretto and came up with narrative, arias, duets, choruses and raps. Raps? There may be echoes of Puccini, but everything about this new opera is the students' own, except the outline of the story and its fantastical nature. A professional writer, Jane Buckler, drew on and shaped the Year 8s' work.
Turandot is full of fairytale and melodrama, and just the thing to excite young students. Princess Turandot promises to marry any prince who can solve three riddles but if he fails in the attempt he must die. Many suitors have been beheaded when Prince Calaf, captivated by Turandot's beauty, steps up. He solves the three riddles, but Turandot is in despair, so he sets her one: if she can guess his name by dawn he will accept death.
All is resolved when Calaf tells Turandot his name (after the slave girl who loves him sacrifices herself, refusing to give him away), putting his life in her hands. At the last minute she chooses love.
Many of the students involved went to Covent Garden and compared the professional Turandot with their own. They also met ROH staff in all departments, from design to box office. The visit has already had an effect. For instance, Sucha Ballay, who has been marketing the opera (one of many GNVQ business students for whom this will be part of coursework), says: "I'm going to take my kids to opera."
The Villiers Turandot is, says Paul Reeve, less Chinese than the original. "There are elements of India and Britain as well, and the biggest change is that we have linked it with a contemporary love story. The story of the opera becomes the girl's dream of being in a position of power, able to take decisions."
Workshops have taken place on Wednesdays, with some aspects of the production - such as the fine collection of suitors' severed heads in the art room - developing between times.
Two professional musicians, John Browne and Ansuman Biswas, have been helping the students shape their compositions and deciding how to link the sections. Ealing Music Services has provided some instruments and a tabla expert, Yogesh Dattani. Deborah Khan, from ROH education, is directing the whole production, with Chix Chandaria, a choreographer with first-hand experience of making Bollywood films, and film-maker Milfid Ellis.
Ms Ellis's sequences, filmed in a sari shop, a colourful bus from Pakistan and a kebab house, will add spice to the production. She and a group of students are also making a documentary about the project.
Add to this students' marketing, advertising and sponsorship work (successes include catering services and printing donated by local firms and sari silk from mothers and shops) and other serendipitous thinking (like the students on a trip to Milan who researched Puccini's life) and it is clear that the whole school has been affected.
"The biggest thing," says headteacher Juliet Strang, "is the motivation it has provided. It is not necessarily the most hard-working or academic pupils who are involved. We have integrated it into the curriculum where possible, and everyone is behind Dai." So there you are. Put your mind to it and you too can turn your school into an offshoot of Covent Garden. A dream come true in itself.
Performances at the school: April 4 and 5ROH education: 020 7212 9410.