Scottish Opera for All - which lets pupils put on their own opera - hits all the right notes, says Brian Hayward
I sometimes think that Scottish Opera and the Scottish Rugby Union should get into bed together, in a business sense, of course. They share exactly the same problem - how to interest young people in their esoteric art forms, in the hope that they might become the players of the future and the spectators to fill the vastness of the Murrayfields and Theatre Royals.
Apart from rugby's TV contracts, they both use the same strategies, especially in the way of youth policies. Scottish Opera's education programme, in particular, is an outstanding and long-lived example (it began in 1971) of what can be done when an organisation applies its strengths to its opportunities, and serves its own turn by meeting the needs of others.
Last week, Scottish Opera for All (as the "youth and education" team is called) was operating alongside the main company's version of Johann Strauss's Die Fledermaus, working for the City of Edinburgh's education department in a five-day schools residency. Two of those days were in the splendid new drama studio at Queensferry High School, where the company delivered a programme shared by the Higher and Standard grade music and drama students.
In the morning, the hugely genial Roger Glass taught the young people the necessary choruses, in the form of scaled-down versions of just a few of the tuneful melodies that crowd this opera-house evergreen. In the afternoon, it was the turn of Jane Davidson, the project director for Scottish Opera for All, to persuade the group to perform the whole crazy plot, in their own words and in their own way.
Davidson has been doing this since 1984 and if she ever gets tired, which seems most unlikely, she could walk straight into TV as a games-show host. Chivvying, clowning, prompting, everywhere at once with props and propelling arms, she reminds you powerfully of Bruce Forsyth of old and The Generation Game, only modest with it.
In her measured crescendo that begins with firm reassurance and ends in manic incitement, Davidson helps the groups create a demotic dialogue to tell the tale. She sets the tone early: "Falke," she tells them, "has been made to look a complete pillock by Eisenstein."
In the same spirit, the snatches of aria sung by Alfredo are replaced by "Just One Cornetto". This, incidentally, proved in performance to be the best-sung chorus, proving, if anything, the value of repetition in learning.
Once this "stagger-through" of dialogue and chorus is completed, Jane hands out the frocks and frills for Adele and Rosalinda, the smoking jackets and false beard for Falke and Eisenstein, the champagne bottles and glasses for the chorus, and it's time for the captive and appreciative audience to be brought in for what turns out to be a remarkably smooth performance of a plot convoluted even by opera standards.
To round off the week's work, all the schools involved in the project came together in the audience on Saturday for the main company's performance at the Festival Theatre, and it is difficult to imagine a more customer-friendly introduction to opera or a more stimulating fillip to their course-work for these Standard grade and Higher students.
The application to course work is, as always, vital. Opera may not feature in the Scottish curriculum, yet, but it is nevertheless the "temple of the arts", and the company is not averse to wheeling out a mere one or two of its muses to suit the need. Last week it was chorus singing and improvisation; another time it might be orchestral playing or a singers' master class. If the school offers theatre studies, then maybe the "Unpacking Opera" programme would be suitable.
Curiously, the muse Terpsichore is saved for the teachers; only in the in-service programme available for primary teachers needing support with the expressive arts does the company offer workshops in music, drama and dance. Common to all of the programmes, however, whether they are school or community-based, is this insistence on participation; wherever and whoever, opera is "for all".
The next venture for the "secondary" work will be in April in Northern Ireland, a reminder that Scottish Opera for All travels well - "from Barra to Barbados", they say, though they see many more pianos than that might imply. Meanwhile, their primary schools programmes go on, with separate companies often working simultaneously in different parts of Scotland. You come to believe that either Scottish Opera will really be "for all", or the team will die (upstage and extravagantly) in the attempt.
Scottish Opera for All, tel: 0141 248 4567