Opera goes back to its roots

21st January 2000 at 00:00
Carmen meets The Jerry Springer Show in a dynamic new performance of Bizet's work by emerging young Glasgow artists, writes Brian Hayward.

Scottish Opera For All (SOFA) calls them "emerging artists". They are 16-18 years of age and belong either to music, dance and theatre organisations in Glasgow, or demonstrate special talent and enthusiasm in school. All of them are considering the performing arts as a career and came together on stage in the Theatre Royal last week in a production of Bizet's Carmen.

The project was funded by Glasgow's cultural and leisure services as part of its policy of providing "high quality arts activity for young people". The cultural services department is only a street away from Scotland's leading arts education team, and it makes good use of it - the company is also managing the Glasgow schools' day in the Millennium Dome on April 14.

SOFA is always ready with a project. "Opera," it used to be said, "is the temple in which all the other arts reside," and Scottish Opera For All now has a company of high priests who can inspire acolytes in everything - from design to Arabic-style percussion.

The percussion is by the contemporary music composer Jon Keliehor, an example of the highly skilled practitioners on whom SOFA can call. Another is Tone Gellein, billed as "one of Norway's leading flamenco artists". Her influence was apparent in this successful performance. A third is Stuart Thomas, director of Take Two Theatre Company, who created the text and collaborated with Keliehor in arranging the music.

He returns the story to its sensational origins by staging it as the kind of television programme made notorious by Jerry Springer, the show where people are paid to quarrel on camera. The presiding judge of this "trial by television" is Paul Connor, a student from the musictheatre course at Knightswood Dance School He dominated the huge spaces of the opera-house, revelling in the role of mischief-making comp re. Around him, the company of 15 acted with all the energy and discipline we have come to expect in SOFA's work, and sang lustily and tunefully, even in the demanding chorus from Act IV.

Debra Stuart directed the singing, and mercifully spared the boys from the solo work; Escamillo was translated into a female footballer, and sang the Toreador song in a way calculated to bring the terraces to their feet.

Carmen herself was played with huge assurance by Victoria Cameron, currently taking a break in her music studies. Her stage presence and confident vocal tone show a maturity beyond her years.

The small orchestra of strings, flute and percussion, all pupils in Glasgow schools, played with restraint or gypsy passion as the situation required.

It's handy having Helen Keenan, of Scottish Opera, in charge of costume; another carmine Carmen, another Escamillo in a suit of lights, another uniformed Don Jose and another Michaela, all members of dance schools in Glasgow, interpreted the rhythms of the overture and the epilogue, to frame the noisy modern version in a mute reminder of the traditional Bizet. The visual impact was heightened when the same dancers performed the Hello magazine dance, an ingenious piece of visual art that was created by a team from the Strathclyde Arts Centre.

The success of this project marks the way forward for Glasgow's arts education. With SOFA bringing together such Glaswegian partners as Jill Mitchell and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra Junior Chorus, Graham Dickie and the Knightswood Dance School of Scotland, Mary McCluskey and the Scottish Youth Theatre, and Norma Donnelly of the Strathclyde Arts Centre, the city council can mobilise for its schools an arts education team which many a city would envy.

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