Activities: Opera is child's play: The Westminster Opera Team brings music to the community. Roberta Mock lent an ear to the composer, the childminder and the shadow-puppet crow

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The Independent Culture
Madhu Gandhi interrupts the story as it is read back to her. 'No, no,' she says. 'First the crow picks up the pebbles in his mouth. Then he flies between the mountains and the deep seas.' Inno Sorsy, a professional storyteller who has been helping Madhu write the narrative of a collaborative opera, makes the adjustments. Madhu approves. The Thirsty Crow is a Hindi parable she remembers from childhood.

Madhu has been a childminder for five years. Her young charge sits at her feet. They both regularly attend the Bayswater Childminders Groupand, as such, are members of the first 'client group' to work with the Westminster Opera Team (WOT), a community arts initiative launched by the English National Opera's Baylis Programme.

The team, a storyteller, a composer and a shadow puppeteer, is devising original shadow puppet operas which will involve both local groups and members of ENO.

A morning spent with the Bayswater Childminders explodes the myth of opera's 'high culture' status. After a warm-up with much hand-clapping, a cassette of the previous week is switched on: 'Swish swish swish goes the tail of the fish . . . '

Carol Tyler, a social services day-care advisor, is enthusiastic about WOT's links with the group. 'Not only are the minders learning how songs can be integrated into the home, they are provided with a social network.' Madhu echoes her feelings. 'This is a new thing for us and we're enjoying it. We're getting our minds fresh.'

Work on The Thirsty Crow progresses swiftly. Hand movements are quickly devised for the libretto: 'Look at the sun, look at the sun, rising, rising'. Within 15 minutes, the final song is written, with composer Karen Wimhurst on accordion. Lyrics involve input from all the adults. The music follows the beating of the crow's wings, swooping up and down. Puppeteer Katinka Haycraft helps the older children manipulate the wings of the paper crow and the toddlers to move pebbles into its mouth.

After a performance of the entire opera, they break for coffee and biscuits. Karen packs away her accordion and shoves some music manuscript paper into a Filofax. 'What has struck me,' she says, 'is that these women make up songs and actions with ease. Perhaps it's because most of them come from Indian and African myth-telling traditions.'

As the childminders turn on the radio and begin dancing, coffee mugs in hand, one can't help thinking how much these enthusiastic music-lovers could revitalise the atmosphere at London's Coliseum.

For further information on Bayswater Childminders Group, telephone Carol Tyler (071-798 1245); for WOT, telephone the Baylis Programme at ENO (071-836 0111, ext 353)

(Photograph omitted)

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