Opera visit causes quite a flutter

6th November 2009 at 00:00
Butterfly project takes wing and elitism fears banished in enthusiasm for all things Japanese

Original paper headline: Opera visit causes quite a flutter as Butterfly project takes wing

When cardiff High School headteacher Mike Griffiths announced that he wanted to take his school to see an opera, there was shock and disbelief among staff and pupils.

"No doubt a few teachers were thinking, `Mike's gone mad,'" joked Mr Griffiths. "Some of the pupils were aghast."

But the opera-loving head had a grand vision not only to introduce his pupils to a new cultural experience, but also for them to learn from it.

Soon the ambitious dream of a whole-school project became the biggest cross-curricular exercise Cardiff High had ever undertaken, with almost every department and subject area involved.

In September, months of work culminated in a school trip on an unprecedented scale, with more than 1,100 pupils attending a performance of Madam Butterfly at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay.

Mr Griffiths said he was inspired by Cardiff High's German exchange partner school, which took 600 pupils to Rome.

"I liked the idea of the whole school doing something big, and I wanted to take them to see an opera," he said.

"I said it would achieve a whole host of objectives: make opera more amenable and appealing to young people, give pupils a new experience, and hopefully dispel the notion that opera is elitist."

Mr Griffiths had already shared his vision with his friend Ian Douglas, company manager of Welsh National Opera, who jokingly dismissed him as "crazy".

But when he wrote to Mr Douglas outlining the aims of the project and emphasising the benefits for WNO, the school was invited to watch a dress rehearsal of Puccini's famous work.

Although it wasn't the opera Mr Griffiths would have chosen, it soon became apparent that because of its Japanese setting and profound religious, ethical and moral issues, Madam Butterfly could fit in with a number of curriculum areas.

Mr Griffiths said: "From a cross-curricular point of view, it's a really good opera. Straight away, I could see obvious links with English, art, geography, and history.

"One of the great advantages of being a head is that you can come up with a grand idea but then delegate the task to colleagues!"

Alison Lambert, strategic leader for the curriculum, had the task of putting the event together.

She said: "I thought, `We have to make this work.' It would not only give pupils a unique cultural opportunity, but also contribute to the wider agenda in education where the arts are becoming more important."

Every department was asked to look at how it could undertake work in the period leading up to the event.

Teachers were each given a synopsis of the opera's plot and told to brainstorm ideas; they soon developed their own ways of buying into the concept.

Art students explored Japanese art and its influence on the West while textiles students studied the design and construction of the kimono, and food technology students made sushi dishes.

In drama, Years 8 and 9 students carried out a thematic exploration of the opera culminating in developing their own play while Year 12 explored Japanese theatre.

Maths students examined co-ordinates through origami while science students looked at Japanese use of colour.

Even Year 12 law students became involved by exploring the law around suicide, the eventual fate of the opera's title character.

But perhaps the biggest responsibility lay with the IT department, which was tasked with designing and printing hundreds of tickets for the performance, each individualised with a pupil's name and seat number.

Sara Davies, head of IT, said: "It was a very big and exciting project to take on; logistically, I had no idea how it would work."

She launched a competition for Year 8 students that tested not only their design skills, but also their data-handling, mail-merging and internet- searching abilities.

"Having a real audience gave them more focus - it proved really successful," said Ms Davies.

"To have more than 1,100 tickets produced with individual names and seat numbers was quite a feat."

As the big day loomed, the staff tried to foster enthusiasm for the event among pupils, most of whom had never been to the opera before.

Mr Griffiths said: "I drummed it into the kids that this is a world-class venue with a world-class production, sets and performers. I said, `Even if you hate the opera, take in the atmosphere and admire the lighting and the set designs.'"

And as if the logistics of the trip weren't challenging enough, the staff were also concerned about how pupils would behave during the three-hour performance, which was open to other invited guests.

But Lindsey Davies, Cardiff High's head of modern foreign languages, who organised all the front-of-house arrangements, said: "It was outstanding: the children went into it with a very positive attitude. They settled quickly and they were fantastically well behaved. I have worked here for nearly 30 years and I think it was one of my proudest moments."

Mr Griffiths said: "Some of them were underwhelmed, others found it incredibly moving. But in the last 20 minutes, they were all enthralled - you could hear a pin drop.

"The music was so powerful and emotional at that stage, they were just gripped by it.

They behaved as children do in a pantomime and responded to the story with cheers for the goodies and boos for the baddies. If you are an opera-goer, you secretly want to boo Pinkerton (the protagonist) because he's a cad and a bounder."

Mr Griffiths was delighted to receive several letters from guests who attended the performance, praising the pupils for their behaviour and congratulating the school on its endeavour.

One said: "My heart sank when I saw hundreds of children. We wondered if they would appreciate opera and sit quietly. But their conduct and behaviour before, during and after were impeccable. Your children are an absolute credit to you and your teaching staff."

Evan John Fisher, chief executive of the WNO, said he was "completely bowled over by the whole experience".

Mr Griffiths said the project was an unqualified success in many ways, and one that he hopes will leave a lasting impression on his pupils.

"I think it was something that even if they didn't enjoy it, they will remember for the rest of their lives. Education should be about something memorable sometimes."

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