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4th July 2003 at 01:00
Hugh John welcomes a software package that introduces key stage 3 pupils to opera

In2Arts (Opera) is a new educational package developed jointly by the Royal Opera House and software designers Immersive Education.

Using Kar2ouche software, the CD, based on Benjamin Britten's opera Peter Grimes, aims to introduce children to an artform with which many may be unfamiliar. Thanks to sponsorship by the Department for Education and Skills, a free copy has been sent to all state secondary schools.

The two-year collaboration between the ROH and Immersive, led by ROH head of education Michael Spencer, has produced a superb resource that supports teachers in key stage 3 music, English, art, drama, PSHE, geography and history.

Why Peter Grimes? Written in 1945, the opera, which is set in an East Coast fishing village, deals with themes that resonate beyond its mid-19th-century setting. Social exclusion, thwarted ambition, vigilantism, prejudice and intolerance are powerfully expressed in this story of a fisherman, the eponymous Grimes who, following the seemingly suspicious deaths of his two young apprentices, is ostracised by his community. The death of Peter Grimes, who takes his boat out to sea and deliberately capsizes it, brings to a close a work that is widely credited with the revival of English opera as a part of the international repertoire.

In July next year the opera will be performed as part of the ROH schools'

matinee programme. And - notwithstanding American critic HL Mencken's wry chortle that "opera in English is, in the main, just about as sensible as baseball in Italian" - it's in English; good news for children who may not be familiar with opera.

Peter Grimes, says Michael Spencer, "was just the obvious, immediate choice. There are so many things you can do with it". Kar2ouche is storyboarding software you can also use for animation. The effects may be somewhat jerky but the underlying intent here is not to create a slick presentation - "a piece of Disney" as Michael Spencer puts it - "but to offer a tool for exploring text and music and discovering all the bits that go into the making of an opera. We look at the operatic conventions - aria, ensemble, interlude, recitative - the basic building blocks of opera, so if you go along to another opera you'll be able to recognise them."

The educational resources work on three interlinking levels. First, the software which allows users to storyboard scenes from the opera or create their own versions. Characters can be presented in a range of poses, manipulated, resized or set against a variety of backdrops including the ROH stage. A number of storyboards are supplied but children and teachers can easily create their own from the text, image and music files provided - or they can import their own material.

Then there's support material which includes a synopsis of the opera, notes, glossaries and an extensive and user-friendly manual for teachers that is printable from its Adobe pdf format.

And finally, there are 17 cross-curricular activities that embrace music, English, art, drama, PSHE, geography and history. These include worksheets, projects, suggestions for poster-making and a musical jigsaw that challenges children to recreate a section of the opera by identifying and then manipulating the different voices in an ensemble. This serves the dual function of acquainting children with the software and introducing types of musical form.

To their credit, the program's creators readily acknowledge that opera isn't the most accessible or popular of arts. If, however, any opera can engage and challenge young people then it is Peter Grimes. There's no doubting Michael Spencer's commitment: "I believe opera to be a much misunderstood and underused resource. It's a fantastic tool that deals with all sorts of contemporary issues."

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