Sounds natural

6th June 1997 at 01:00
Today, children from Howford School in Glasgow will attend Scottish Opera's The Cunning Little Vixen. Last month, they produced their own version, writes Svend Brown

On the whole, opera is not the most child-friendly of the arts: too few laughs, too many heroines screeching their last, too many long arias. And then there's the sex and death. Leos Jan cek's nature opera, The Cunning Little Vixen, has plenty of both, and frustrated passion, disappointed hopes, bitter satire, cruelty and senseless violence besides. Disney it ain't, but the adult complexities are overlaid on an enchanting animal story, told so entertainingly that children love it.

Scottish Opera is currently reviving David Pountney's production, which still looks good after nearly 17 years' service around Britain. Scottish Opera for All has complemented it with a raft of schools projects in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Newcastle. Each combines creative workshops with special presentations: Scottish bass-baritone Bill McCue and other members of the cast introduce the opera itself, prior to the children attending an actual performance.

In all this activity, one project - at Howford School, a special school on the south side of Glasgow - stands out. There, the children were joined by six of the opera's players for a performance of their own version of the opera on May 13. This school has built a strong relationship with the Scottish Opera Orchestra over a number of years. Together they have undertaken increasingly ambitious projects. At first, players simply performed Camille Saint-Sa n's Carnival of the Animals, to which the children created a movement piece.

For the Flowers Festival, the school's music therapist, Helen Cais, created a narration and selected appropriate music for the children to work with. This year for the first time, children were actually involved in the writing and performance of the music.

They used Jan cek's story (adapted from the libretto by Helen Cais), but not his music. Like him, they emphasised the comforting moral of the tale: sadly the vixen heroine is shot by the poacher and ends up as a muff for his bride to be; but her fox-cubs take her place, the cycle of life continues and the seasons pass. So, Howford's opera opened and closed with the same song.

The children set the scene by creating sound evocations of the forest, then focused on the most colourful scenes from the story - the capture of the vixen, her killing of the hens and escape, her death and funeral march. All of this gave plenty of opportunities for inventive movement, with a large cast of animals. Class 7 created its own music with Peter Kemp, the music specialist at the school, who also wrote the majority of the remaining music.

As always in these situations, Kemp was faced with the dilemma of how to offer a strong enough lead to the children without inhibiting their creativity. "It came to be a process of finding out what each of the children's capacities was and working outwards," he says, "spotting something they were doing and pushing them to try something just a little bit more - not imposing on them but evolving with them."

It is plainly crucial that the right balance is struck, but it is also a tall order, not least because of the wide range of musical abilities represented in the classes. Yet the school has seen some great successes.

At the start of the workshops, one boy could not hold a pulse - his attention span was very limited, and he was unwilling to listen to others in the group and fit in. As the weeks went on, he found that ability for himself, but it demanded patience, and not just from the teachers.

One of the more able children grew difficult during the rehearsal process: being perfectly capable of performing his own bit, he swiftly lost patience with the others who took longer to learn and needed everyone to bear with them. Only at the performance itself did he fully recognise that the rehearsal had to be done, everyone had to know the piece, otherwise it would not work. The social and personal lessons both children learned would be difficult to teach any other way.

Above all, the benefit of musical situations like this is that they allow individuals to learn all sorts of subtle lessons for themselves: nothing to do with sound or notes. Music's capacity to develop powers of concentration, social awareness and team spirit is well known.

These children also got the sheer delight and satisfaction of being the centre of attention at their performance of their piece of music. It is a great reward for a lot of hard work, and Kemp draws attention to this as one of the most valuable things of all. Ambition whetted, he wants next time to try and involve not just three classes, but the whole school.

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