8th June 2001 at 01:00

A new opera by Welsh National Opera and the children of Merthyr Tydfil Children in south Wales are cutting their operatic teeth on their own new work. Christina Zaba reports.

In a rehearsal room on a rainy day in Cardiff, something unique is happening. Two hundred pupils in Years 5 and 6 are listening attentively to a professional movement coach. Their arms are stiffly crossed in front of them, their hands at 9 and 12, and they're ticking. But the coach isn't satisfied. "Don't move your heads. It's just the movement of the arms I want. And point your fingers. Now we're going to do four slow and another four twice as fast."

They try; and suddenly the piece takes wing, the children transformed into real performers, carrying out the tricky rhythmic adjustment flawlessly. They've been here for two hours now, but nobody seems to be flagging. This afternoon they're going to attend an early-20th-century opera starring some of the people in the room. The children already know the motifs, the characters and the story of the opera they're going to see, Jan cyek's Katya Kabanova directed by Katie Mitchell. They know its narrative drawbacks and they've worked on its modification; they have, they think, improved to some extent on its characterisation. The children from four Merthyr Tydfil primary schools have engaged with and gone beyond Jan cyek. So what's going on?

This is the Katerina project, run by Welsh National Opera's community and education department. Since January, WNO has been collaborating with the schools (Goetre junior, Edwardsville junior, Trelewis primary and Gwaunfarren primary) to write a whole new opera which will be performed next week. Composed by the distinguished Royal Academy tutor Ruth Byrchmore, with libretto by the leading South Wales poet and playwright Alan Osborne, the new work, Katerina, has been co-created by the children themselves. And it's extraordinary.

"Our starting point was the WNO's own repertoire," explains Sarah Alexander, the project director. "This season, the company's doing Katya Kabanova, so we started there. With Alan's help, the children turned the story round and made it their own. Ruth and Alan developed it from there, using workshops to pool ideas."

"Very quickly it turned into a myth about a daughter of the river," says Alan. "The Jan cyek opera ends in suicide, which is dark and cruel. But the children found a resolution to it themselves. We've turned Katerina into a child of nature. So when she throws herself in the river, it takes her home, and she's reborn." He confides: "To me, Katerina is Merthyr Tydfil, the martyr. And the children aren't just the chorus - they're witnesses."

Drawing on the breadth of a literature as ancient as The Mabinogion and as modern as Under Milk Wood, the story of Katerina is mythic in its resonance and poetic in its power, containing comedy as well as high seriousness.

Sue Harwood, acting deputy head of oetre junior on Merthyr Tydfil's Gurnos estate, remembers the day the children first saw the finished score. "They were saying, 'we wrote that' and 'that line came from our school'. They were so excited," she recalls. "It's a very good project - it gets the children off the estate, and it gets them into opera."

And WNO benefits too, as general director Anthony Freud points out. "There's a dual process of enrichment going on," he says, "not just for the children and schools, but for us as a company as well. The company members are able to test themselves and extend their expertise; and we hope it's been beneficial for the teachers. Katerina is the biggest project of this kind that we've ever done, and there's an infectious interest in it - everyone's excited."

"It's wonderful for the kids to be working with real opera singers," comments Colin Davies, deputy head of Edwardsville, who took part in a WNO production of The Magic Flute at 13 and has never forgotten it. "This will stay with them for life. It has taken a lot of curriculum time, but it's been an amazing hands-on experience of opera."

"It was interesting writing a score that allows professional soloists a chance to shine, while using the children's voices too," says Ms Byrchmore. "And working with the children was magical. We pulled apart themes from the opera and saw how they responded to the fragments, and then built the music up from there. Now it's written, we hope the first performance won't be the only one. We hope it'll be put out into the world and published somehow."

It's clear that the children have been on an unforgettable artistic journey. As a break in rehearsal is announced, pupils from Trelewis gather round. "It's major fun," says Philip laconically. Loran and Cerys are more expansive. "We're getting to know opera," says Loran. "All schools should have a chance to do this."

"The process has been about giving the children the right to create, and then creating alongside them," says Ms Byrchmore. The children endorse this. They know too, as everyone here does, that the end result is magical. Would they say that others should work in this way with opera? "Oh, yes," says Cerys. "Definitely recommended."

The premiere of Katerina is on June 14 at 4pm and 6.30pm at Rhydycar Leisure Centre, Merthyr Tydfil. Admission is free. Tickets from Katie Gibson at WNO on 029 2046 4666 (10am-5pm), or at the door subject to availability.The WNO production of Katya Kabanova is at Southampton Mayflower Theatre, on June 20 (02380 711811); Apollo Theatre, Oxford, on June 28 (0870 6063502); North Wales Theatre, Llandudno, on July 5 (01492 872000); and the Hippodrome Theatre, Bristol, on July 12 (0870 607 7500) . Katya Kabanova is touring in repertory with The Magic Flute and Tosca.WNO community and education department is seeking further collaborations with schools. Contact Berwyn Davies on 029 2046 4666, or email berwyn.davies@wno.org.uk

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