Vocal heroes;Music

27th March 1998 at 00:00
While opera's big wigs thrash out their differences in public, a range of projects taking the music into schools is proving a hit with children, writes Michael Church

Next week, three English National Opera singers will take over a converted church in east London and persuade local schoolchildren to perform choruses from Carmen. The opera workshop - Op-Roar - is part of !Informance!, a project bringing a series of diverse musical events to schoolchildren.

The driving force behind the series is a live-wire Chinese-American pianist, Gwendolyn Mok. Ms Mok, who grew up in New York and took part in conductor Leonard Bernstein's legendary educational outreach programmes in Harlem and the Bronx, conceived the project - and persuaded a major financial institution to fund it.

The ENO's involvement is significant because the company has its own programme of events giving schools a practical taste of opera. In fact, the education departments of the ENO and the Royal Opera, despite much-publicised management traumas, are going full steam.

Ms Mok says: "You can't overestimate the value of music for drawing out the talent of kids in deprived areas. And with spending cuts in the arts, British educational policy has been going the other way."

Last year, she persuaded Citibank to sponsor a series of recitals she gave for schools at London's Courtauld Institute. Now she's got the bank to finance this more radical scheme. Next year she hopes to set up two scholarships for outstandingly gifted musicians.

And her initiative is clearly meeting a need. One of the schools taking part in Op-Roar is Blessed John Roche School, on the Isle of Dogs. At another workshop involving flamenco guitarist Juan Martin, Andrew Campling, head of music at the school, watches one of his pupils try out the tabla and guitar. He says: "I'd start something like this if we had the money, but it would cost pound;100 to send my boys to a concert, and three or four times that to bring musicians into school. My annual budget is just pound;600."

St Bonaventure's secondary school, in Newham, is also taking part in Op-Roar. Recently ENO members helped pupils put together their own opera, which played to an audience of parents and local people in December, with a cast of 70 and an amateur orchestra of 20.

A group of pupils had visited the Coliseum in London to see Jan ycek's prison opera From the House of the Dead, and developed their own, more jazzy, prison-opera. At rehearsals, the ENO coach, Mary King, was amazed. "Sixty boys have been turning up every week and singing in four-parts with fantastic accuracy. I've never seen such a thing in a state school before." Frank O'Connor, the school's head of music, says he embarked on the project with one aim - "to destroy the myth that boys - particularly boys from east London - can't sing".

Spurred on by the opera's success, he's started a gospel choir, importing girls from nearby St Angela's. Music by Peter Gabriel and Genesis has been interwoven with Vivaldi and medieval chant, and "the kids are responding fantastically".

ENO's invitation to participate in an opera workshop couldn't have come at a better time, he says. "I was just wondering what we could do next." Newly emboldened, he is now contemplating a production of Willy Russell's Blood Brothers - copyright permitting - or, failing that, of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. Meanwhile, he hopes to take his young musicians on a European tour, even though he's desperately short of equipment.

But ENO's education activities - collectively known as the Baylis Programme - range further than one-off collaborations. With its main-house production of Gavin Bryar's latest opera, Doctor Ox's Experiment, it is running a parallel project at Our Lady's Convent, Hackney, where pupils will stage their own production of the piece. And for older students with exceptional talent, ENO runs The Knack, a one-year part-time course on which students develop their performing skills.

ENO's management problems are nothing compared to those afflicting the Royal Opera, where each week seems to bring fresh disasters. So it's all the more cheering to find the Cambridge Corn Exchange galvanised by the Royal Opera's education department.

At the end of February, the vast stage in this converted Victorian building was transformed into a multi-layered landscape for Heroes Don't Dance, a community opera with a large contingent of schoolchildren among the cast of 55. The plot moved from bedroom to desert to a final fancy-dress ball dominated by the peroxide-blonde "Fabulous Dinner Ladies".

It concerned a teacher who blamed himself for the death of a pupil. Unable to leave the house, he took refuge in an imaginary world of derring-do. His reclamation by colleagues, parents and pupils reached its climax at the annual ball.

The dead boy - a haunting presence throughout the action - was played by two young performers who took centre stage on alternate nights - Tom Howard, 13, and 11-year-old Joe Fox-Williams.

"When we first heard what we would have to sing," says Joe, "we both thought, oh my God!" But, says Tom: "I helped Joe with the acting, and he helped me with the singing."

Other cast members were similarly daunted. "I was pessimistic at first," says 16-year-old Caitlin Leigh. "I thought it was all about being a little Pavarotti. But I've become more and more intrigued."

Composer Julian Grant tried to grade the parts according to experience, but found that Cambridge "has many amateurs who can sing well".

The Royal Opera's creative team had wanted to stage a professional project, but was turned down by the East Anglian Arts Board, which instead suggested the community opera. Two summer-schools drew a mostly female body of volunteers, and the story evolved from the resulting workshops.

Librettist Christian Jones, who wrote the final script, wanted to portray "the devastating effect a child's death can have, not just on the family, but on the whole community".

The production has come and gone - to considerable critical acclaim - but it is already scheduled for an afterlife - it is one of the new works that will grace Covent Garden's studio theatre when it opens in 2000.

While the nobs in the business continue to make fools of themselves - sacking each other, or building castles in the air - the humble educationists in their ranks are getting on with the job that really matters - building an audience for the future.

For details of the ENO Baylis Programme, contact Steve Moffitt Tel: 0171 739 5808 Royal Opera education department Tel: 0171 212 91719379

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