Under the same roof at long last

26th December 1997 at 00:00
Provision for arts education has been specially built into Scottish Opera's new home, writes Brian Hayward

It looks like just another new factory among the industrial and commercial buildings on Edington Street, below the canal, north of Cowcaddens in Glasgow. But it is called a Centre for Technical Excellence and is likely to be just that - for this is Scottish Opera's first real home.

For the first time, all the 101 things that make up an opera, from building the sets to final rehearsals, hitherto carried out in premises scattered all over Greater Glasgow, will now take place under the same roof. In addition, facilities include a special ventilation system with a de-bugging device for forestalling the spread of respiratory infections among the singers.

The centre is good news not only for the company but for schools as well. For the first time proper "backstage tours" will be possible, where children will be able to see opera in the making. Education project director, Jane Davidson, is delighted. For once, she has seen provision for arts education built in with the bricks - she has her own workshop room, her own props store and a desk in the music office.

Scottish Opera's education unit - Opera for All - has been boosted by the arrival, last September, of its new general director, Ruth Mackenzie. She came from the Playhouse at Nottingham, a theatre, town and county whose enlightened educational arts work has been a feature of the Edinburgh Fringe for some years. Jane Davidson is obviously delighted to know that someone with "an informed and enthusiastic approach to education is at the heart of the company".

For Jane Davidson opera is at the heart of arts education. She believes that it is the ultimate in integrated arts - the home for drama, dance, music and art. The floor of her education room is the only one in the building to be sprung for dance; it is also washable for artwork. But she has her eye on the company's rehearsal room too - a huge, bright hangar fitted with acoustic walls, simple stage lighting and a polished wooden floor.

It was in this room that Scottish Opera for All formally opened the building to the public last week with Pandemonium, a special Christmas project for primary schools.

With funding from Marks and Spencer, Opera for All brought the Primary 7s from Netherlee school in Eastwood and St Lawrence's in Greenock together in a multi-arts venture in which the children contributed ideas and helped develop the script, designed the posters and staged the performance.

For the first fortnight of the project, the team of music, dance, drama and art specialists worked in the two schools, supported by four members of the Scottish Opera orchestra. In the third week, the pupils came to Edington Street for dress rehearsals and the two performances. At a dress rehearsal I was impressed by the discipline of the young cast. "The education unit works to very exacting standards," says Jane Davidson.

"It has taken me years to get my hands on quality people - Ann Archibald from Barrhead, and Debra Stuart from Dundee, for example," says Jane Davidson. "They're brilliant singers, but they are also communicators. They can walk into schools and talk to the children in their own language."

The score for Pandemonium was written by David Munro, the music specialist. "He writes instinctively for children," explains Jane Davidson. "He's got a lot more in him, and I'm going to extract it." And if the orchestra plays the score with such joyous panache, it is because "the tremendously talented cellist Stephen Adam has orchestrated it for all his pals, and given them star spots".

If Jane Davidson has obeyed the first rule for success - surround yourself with talent - it is because quality is the cornerstone of her operation. It is the guarantee she offers to schools wooed by theatre in education groups of all colours and flexible fees.

"If you want quality," she says, "you have to pay for it, and it doesn't come cheap. Opera for All has 'quality' written all the way through, and comes with a track record of success."

For the immediate future, Opera for All's established primary and secondary programmes will continue throughout Scotland, and there are plans for a partnership with the Edinburgh Festival Theatre. But the new centre will mean more contact with schools in the former Strathclyde region, and the possibility of "Family days" and summer residential schools for children. "And that won't be babysitting," warns Jane Davidson. "If they come, they'll learn."

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