Singers in the big city

17th November 2000 at 00:00
The Baylis projects encourage a universal impulse to sing, says Tom Deveson

Operatic heroines and heroes need to have their feet firmly on the ground. However mythical their surroundings, no matter how fabulous the atmosphere they breathe, they move us only if they sing of human concerns. Nietzsche, one of opera's subtlest critics, knew that even Wagner's timeless and legendary characters were engrossed by "problems which are at home in big cities".

Since the summer of 1999, the Baylis Programme of English National Opera has been at home in a corner of our biggest city. Funded by the Pool of London Partnership through the Government's Single Regeneration Budget, it has established a four-year residency in north Southwark. This area - Bermondsey and Rotherhithe - is something of a paradox: high on indices of social and economic deprivation, high too in inventive and creative dynamism. After one year, the residency has already flowered into an extraordinary range of activities, all having at their heart the simple, near-universal impulse: "I feel like singing." The projects have shrewdly and generously challenged the two inhibitions that so often thwart that same impulse: our anxiety that our voices will not make pleasing sounds, and our fear that we cannot invent music suitable for the feelings we want to express.

Local primary and secondary schools have hosted after-school and artist-in-residence schemes where musicians work with pupils at creating new songs and new versions of old songs for lively, tuneful shows in school halls. There have been short, intense projects in secondary schools, working on classics such as Gay's The Beggar's Opera and Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, culminating in new pieces of music theatre that draw on artistic techniques and public controversies from the 17th, 18th, 20th and 21st centuries. Teachers' courses, visits by pupils to ENO's home at the Coliseum, and thrilling and accessible introductions to operatic conventions have all had a place, co-ordinated by John Riches, who runs the residency with skill, calm and great geniality.

John Riches's vision, formed over years of work in community arts, is to involve local people in "a dialogue between a national arts organisation and a specific community".

Teenagers in school have been given many opportunities to make opera their own. St Saviour's and St Olave's comprehensive school for girls already has an enviable reputation for the quality of its art and music. These were combined in a project in which the animation company D fie foe enabled students to work with state-of-the-art computer equipment to create a film responding to extracts from ENO's repertoire - Madam Butterfly, The Pearl Fishers, Debussy's Pelleas and others. A different group of students then watched the film - without the music - and worked with composer Simon Wring to develop an entirely new score. The three elements were presented together at a performance in the school.

Younger hildren have been introduced to opera as listeners, performers, designers and discoverers. Pupils from four primary schools worked on different aspects of La Boheme. They developed a market song for the streets of Paris; they made a backdrop and masks for performers; Mimi and Rodolfo sang to the entire school during an assembly. In a performance at the ENO rehearsal space, the children saw a cut-down version of the opera (not sparing the tragic ending), featured as workers in the cafe and sang their market song.

Some initial embarrassed giggling rapidly turned to enthusiasm and, where appropriate, respectful silence. A child in one school explained to his parents his eager wish to go again to hear Puccini's evocation of love, sickness, poverty and other "problems which are at home in big cities". When asked, "You don't really like that kind of music, do you?" his response was unequivocal and affirmative: "I do now."

Baylis Programme at English National Opera: ENO Works, 40 Pitfield Street, London N1 6EU. Tel: 020 7739 5808. Fax: 020 7729 8928. E-mail: For the North Southwark residency, contact John Riches at the same address.


BOTH the Royal Opera House and English National Opera run educational pro-grammes, as do other major companies such as Northern Opera, Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera. The regional arts boards can be contacted for advice on which opera companies are active in education locally and on funding:

Arts Councils of England, Scotland, and Wales give information both on music-theatre and operatic activities as well as funding.

The music curriculum is flexible enough to give many opportunities for exploring opera. At key stage 2, for example, pupils "explore their own ideas and feelings about music, using movement, dance, expressive language". This might be exemplified by seeing a scene on video from Oliver Knussen's 'Where the Wild Things Are' and using it to develop a mimedance accompanied by a spoken poem. At key stage 3, pupils "identify the contextual influences that affect the way music is created" and this would be a chance, for example, to listen to parts of the BrechtWeill 'Threepenny Opera' against a study of pre-Hitler Germany.

If you have not got a singer available, introducing opera to the class is often best done through drama: "There are some young people living in a flat. They owe a lot for the rent. Who are they? What should they sell? Develop a scene and then see what Puccini did with the same episode." Another way is by listening to our voices when we tell a story. The book 'Each Peach Pear Plum' by Janet and Allan Ahlberg is implicitly operatic. It contains repetition, rhythm, sound patterns, characters, drama. When we speak it, our voices change in pace, pitch and timbre. Could we turn those effects into vocal music and add some instrumental sounds?


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