How the Royal Opera House helped a suburb find its voice

Rob Sharp visits a community choir as it takes the stage at Covent Garden
  • @robbiesharp

Martin French, a 46-year-old electrician from Thurrock in Essex, stands in a school music room, breathes deeply, then blasts out several bars from Verdi's 1853 opera, Il Trovatore. Nearby, dozens of other residents shuffle sheaves of music and stare attentively towards the front.

Mr French, along with about 75 other people living in one of Essex's most culturally deprived areas, is a member of Thurrock Community Chorus. The Royal Opera House set up the choir in May to introduce opera to new audiences.

The group is preparing to debut at Covent Garden in London next week with a performance of Verdi's Anvil Chorus – one of opera's most instantly recognisable passages – to hundreds of families at a "welcome performance" aimed at those who have never experienced the art form before.

"A friend of mine was going to sing in public. She needed some practice so we went to several karaoke bars," said Mr French. "That's when I discovered I could sing. I now do all I can to explore my classical side. This is a wonderful opportunity to do something I love."

Thurrock, perhaps best known for its sprawling Lakeside shopping centre, is part of the Government's Thames Gateway regeneration area. Almost 20,000 new homes are due to be built here by 2021. But the cultural delights on offer are lagging behind the speed of housebuilding, so in December the Royal Opera House opened an £8m scenery-making workshop in nearby Purfleet. The launch featured a performance of a new opera – Ludd and Isis, The Purfleet Opera – inspired by Thurrock and using local singers and musicians. It was well received, and a permanent choir followed.

"We are delighted to be reaching out with singing to a whole new part of the community," said Matt Lane, head of the Royal Opera House in Thurrock and the Thames Gateway.

The chorus, conducted by the ROH's community chorus director, Jeremy Haneman, began recruiting in the spring and now meets weekly. Mr Haneman splits the choir's year into several two-month terms, each of which culminates in a performance. The first term finished with a July concert of excerpts from Bizet's Carmen. The chorus, which rehearses in a school, also benefits from the occasional visits by seasoned ROH singers.

"Community choirs have a bad reputation but people come here because they are genuinely really good," said Mr Haneman. "We make sure we combine the core experience with encouraging people's individuality".

At a rehearsal on Monday night, the choir's diversity was apparent. Those using it as therapy to recover from illness warmed up alongside businessmen attending with their wives and children; eight-year-old novices belted out librettos opposite retired people.

"I am unable to work because I suffer from bipolar disorder and this has helped enormously," said Rosemary Matthewson, 60. Barbara Dawes, 62, who is recovering from a stroke, added: "It has helped my confidence. I am working here in different languages, it's great."

Gary Houghton, 32, who works in the photocopying room at South Essex College, said that society was "used to people being selfish" and the choir represented a good way for the community to "pull together".

"We all want to make it work," he added. Many of those attending praised the overall quality of those participating.

Now, Mr Haneman's aim is to expand the choir's membership to 200 and take them of tour as cultural ambassadors, introducing opera to other parts of the country. In the short term, at least, he is unlikely to suffer from lack of commitment.

"I am a shift electrician and I have just arranged cover," said Mr French. "There is an emotion, a feeling you get when you hear a lot of people making a beautiful sound. There's nothing quite like it."