In tune with Wagner and Verdi

22nd July 2005 at 01:00
Brian Hayward finds out how North Ayrshire has made opera popular with its pupils

Scottish Opera's education department has a problem. It's not money, because they are untouched by the present troubles of the parent company - in fact, their upcoming two-year programme is even stronger. Nor is it status, because they can boast of being the oldest of all the opera houses of Europe. Neither is it people or facilities - Jane Davidson, head of the unit, reckons them to be the largest and best resourced arts base in the country.

No, the problem seems to be about image. Somehow, it seems almost every child is brainwashed with the idea that "opera is not for them". Use Puccini's Nessun Dorma in a football programme (the 1990 World Cup theme) and it gets into the charts. Put "opera" anywhere near an advert for a summer school and you struggle to make up the numbers. That at least is the message coming out of North Ayrshire this summer.

Of course, there may be other reasons. The unit has always insisted on quality work, and that never comes cheap. Even with help from the local authority, parents may find the cost a factor. Even though North Ayrshire has five years of distinguished connection with the company, including the commissioning of three operas, this first summer school in the Vikingar Centre in Largs was disappointing.

For those that came, there was the luxury of intensive teaching from specialist art, music and drama staff. In term time these same people operate Fever! (below) as part of the "opera in a day" for primary schools; the summer school, on the other hand, gives them time to adapt to the talents of the children.

Lissa Lorenzo, who manages the summer school, and goes round the country for the rest of the year, was more than happy to be working in North Ayrshire again with her team.

"There are some schools I dread going to," she says, "but here the children are so responsive. Maybe it's the quality of the expressive arts work. They are so friendly and sociable. And keen! One girl comes over from Cumbrae every day on the ferry."

There is no question of the value of the work, or the pleasure for the children and their families in the final performance. All Ms Davidson has to do is get the message out that she has a team to deliver a range of quality arts programmes. Her solution is one that excites her: "We're making a DVD called Join Us. It covers everything we do - the children's opera, the children with Opera Go Round, the summer schools, the workshops - everything.

"I was gobsmacked when I saw the footage. It looks brilliant. We're going to send 10,000 out this autumn to all the schools, the arts co-ordinators, local authorities, arts centres, to anybody who wants one."

Beginning with a Wagner programme, she has developed Standard grade support work in art, music and drama that links to actual performance and, working with Opera Go Round, she has been exploring roles for children in opera.

These two come together next term for Verdi's Macbeth, which will give more than 100 primary schoolchildren the chance to appear on stage in the real thing.

At secondary level, the new "Unwrap" programme will give 1,200 pupils in Irvine, Hamilton and Kilmarnock the chance to see "edited highlights" of Macbeth in their local theatres, for which they will be prepared with an introduction to the opera and teaching packs for Standard grade.

Further details, tel: 0141 242 0563

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