Two hundred pupils in Years 5 and 6 are listening to a professional movement coach in Cardiff. Their arms are stiffly crossed in front of them 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. 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 story of the opera they're going to see, Janacek'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.
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, Merthyr Tydfil ) to write an opera which will be performed next week. Composed by Royal Academy tutor Ruth Byrchmore, with libretto by South Wales poet and playwright Alan Osborne, the new work has been co-created by the children themselves.
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 Goetre 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.
- Picture: WNO's Sarah Alexander with children of Gwaunfarren primary
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 email@example.com
A longer version of this feature appears in this week's Friday magazine