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You shall go to the opera

How do you sing 'excited' or 'sad'? Sarah Farley finds out from the pupils who are living and breathing Rossini.

The latest Girls Aloud release is not the only song the pupils of the Vineyard school, in Richmond, keep singing to themselves. The captivating melodies of the 18th-century composer Gioacchino Rossini are also on their lips, put there by the many hours they have spent rehearsing for their part as courtiers in the Italian maestro's La Cenerentola, or Cinderella.

"Rossini wrote the pop music of his time," says Saffron van Zwanenberg, the education workshop director of the Garden Opera Company, which is giving this group of around 40 junior pupils their first taste of the art form.

"The tunes are almost annoying they are so catchy."

Certainly, the infectious quality of Rossini's music has helped the children to learn the words they are to sing at a performance on Richmond Green, part of a fundraising event to support the local Citizens Advice Bureau. Guided by their music teacher Stuart Marsden, the school choir has spent countless lunchtime rehearsals busily preparing for what is effectively a cameo role in the middle of a professionally produced opera.

Now, with just a few days to go, Saffron van Zwanenberg and director Peter Bridges arrive at the school to take a workshop. La Cenerentola has been translated by Amanda Holden and the dialogue adapted by production director Martin Lloyd-Evans so that the story is accessible and up to date while remaining true to the fairytale Cinderella the children all know. But Ms van Zwanenberg's first words represent a new challenge to the assembled seven to 11-year-olds.

"Right, we are a professional company and I am going to treat you like professional singers and actors," she says. "First of all, the warm-up. Who knows 'Joe, my name is Joe'?" A few hesitant hands go up.

Five minutes later, they are pinker in the face and have all become acquainted with Joe. Next, Ms van Zwanenberg gives a quick run-through of how the opera differs from Cinderella: Cinderella is Angelina, the ugly sisters are Clorinda and Tisbe, Buttons is Dandini and, disappointingly, there is no Fairy Godmother. "In opera you have to do big acting but no talking," says Ms van Zwanenberg. "All the communication is through the music and singing, and the movement and facial expression."

She performs several charades of a scene, using a different cast each time, encouraging the children to throw self-consciousness aside and use silent screen gestures and expressions to convey the plot. The first group is wary, but they soon get the hang of it and some begin to relish the melodrama. Moving on to the musical content, the children discuss how music makes you feel emotions and how the cast must convey that. Their role as courtiers involves singing their chorus about the ball, descending from the stage to deliver the invitations to the audience and then returning to the stage to sing again. They have to appear thrilled at the prospect and yet maintain the dignity of their rank.

The choir go over their piece time and time again. "You can't just sing excited," says Peter Bridges. "You actually have to be excited to make the feeling come across to the audience." The choir's voice level drops occasionally and they are soon brought back to full volume. Another line requires a gossipy aside. "Whisper it loudly," they are advised. "To sound nervous and excited, sotto voce, break after each note."

Rehearsals over, Ms van Zwanenberg asks the young singers how they feel.

"Excited", "honoured", "happy", come the answers. Just like Cinderella on her way to the ball.

The Garden Opera Company, All Saints Church, 100 Prince of Wales Drive, London SW11 4BD; tel 020 7720 4627; email

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