Little beggars' opera

Sleep-overs, playground rites of passage, Chinese monkeys. Add the scriptwriter for `The Bill', the composer for `Hamish Macbeth', and Glyndebourne's first children's opera hits the stage. By Michael Church
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The Independent Culture
While scholars in medieval Europe employed amanuenses, their eccentric counterparts in China used tiny monkeys to help with their labours. These docile creatures mixed ink, passed brushes and turned pages; off duty, they slept in the drawers of their masters' desks. This piquant fact, long forgotten, caused a stir last year when the monkey-breed in question was found to be not extinct. At Glyndebourne this week it will cause a stir of a different sort, when an opera in which it forms the pivotal image gets its first public airing.

This is outside the Sussex opera house's usual champagne-and-strawberries season, and the performers are not - with one or two exceptions - the usual bunch of operatic pros. The fictional setting is also unusual, in that it swings between a scholar's library in medieval China and bedrooms and playgrounds in Britain today. The plot turns on bullying, vandalism, and all the paraphernalia of contemporary teenage existence. A big hand, then, for the first children's opera ever to grace this exclusive stage.

Indeed, for a children's opera tout court - because there are remarkably few of them around. We have Ravel's L'Enfant et les sortileges, and Oliver Knussen's Maurice Sendak-scripted Where the Wild Things Are, but those are operas about childhood, composed for the delectation of grown-ups. As far as the real thing goes, we have Noye's Fludde by Benjamin Britten, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat (if you call that an opera), and precious little else (mostly by Peter Maxwell Davies). So, if your local school wants to do an end-of-term opera and has already done Joseph and Noye, Glyndebourne's latest offering might just be the answer.

Masterminded by Katie Tearle, Glyndebourne's head of education, Misper has its origins in three community operas mounted by the company over the past few years in Sussex, Kent and Cambridgeshire: the first, an epic history of the growth of St Leonards, performed in the ballroom at the end of Hastings Pier; the second, an allegorical response to the arrival of Eurotunnel, staged in an Ashford leisure centre at a time when the railway town seemed destined for a rude upheaval; the third, an equally allegorical fantasy about angels past and present, set partly in Peterborough Cathedral, partly on the up-and-down escalators of an adjoining shopping centre. But, tailor-made as these projects were to the particular interests and abilities of their participating communities, such site-specificity had its drawbacks, in that the works could not be staged anywhere else, or by any other performers.

As it happens, Glyndebourne Education had also been working on a project with the probation service, and Tearle suggested to her librettist Stephen Plaice - a former writer-in-residence at Lewes top-security prison, better known for his work on ITV's The Bill - and her director Stephen Langridge - son of the tenor Philip, and himself a leading light in opera-education (whose credits also include staging West Side Story in Wandsworth Prison) - that they develop an opera specifically for young performers, to be given in the festival theatre itself. "But we knew from the start," says Tearle, "that this would only work if we began by workshopping the piece in schools, and finding out what the children themselves wanted to see on stage."

Langridge and Plaice, together with the composer John Lunn, went into classrooms, listened, and learnt. "We started with open minds," says Langridge. "We did have a vague notion of something along the lines of The Lord of the Flies, but it quickly moved to a more contemporary arena. But we still noticed that it was when they imagined themselves in a world without adults that the children's ideas really took fire. That remained the principle which guided us. We got them to talk about things which are normally adolescent secrets - like what happens at a sleep-over. How do you get the alcohol for it? How do you get your X-rated films? And what do you do all night? It turns out that most of the time they're just sitting around, talking, and getting mildly and pleasurably frightened."

The other main area they got their juvenile collaborators to describe was the playground, and how it changed from primary to secondary school. "It was the difference between something totally open and excited and mixed-sex, and something grim, separated, and with no games except football. They told us that, if you carried on playing primary games in secondary school, you got written off as `sad'. This tension became one of the keys to our opera."

Plaice, who more often haunts police stations in his researches for The Bill, decided to put his draft libretto through that TV show's story-line process: starting with a half-page thought, expanding it to a page, then to its full length. "It was a good discipline," he says. "And the kids were our advisers at every stage. We've been able to get inside their culture, and check the results against reality. I think this may be the first time that the words of the Metropolitan Police caution have ever been set to music." No doubt John Lunn's experience as composer for the Scottish TV series Hamish Macbeth came in handy. The ink-monkeys, Plaice adds, are a living metaphor for the story's spray- painting protagonist; the title - Misper - is police argot for "missing person".

Alison Chitty, who designed the show while staging Cardiff East in the Cottesloe and Turandot at the Bastille in Paris (and was also production designer on Mike Leigh's Oscar-nominated movie, Secrets and Lies), says that Misper has proved one of the hardest things she's ever had to realise. "It's the phenomenal speed with which the locations change: natural for film, but infinitely harder in opera. With film, you can wield the scissors, but opera-time is finite. John will write a set number of bars, and during that time we have to get from a bit of waste ground in Sussex, to a library in ancient China, to a modern teenager's bedroom. I'm doing a lot of tricks with lighting."

For her different purposes, Chitty too did some grass-roots research among school-age kids. "I told them this was an educational project, and that the person who needed educating was me." She quizzed the youngsters on how they decorated their bedrooms, and on the ever-changing rules of adolescent sartorial etiquette. While Plaice was learning the meaning of terms like dweeb and dob, Chitty learnt what vans were, which Reeboks were in vogue, and which shirts should have a button at the back of the neck. But she also hired a Chinese calligraphy specialist, so that the ideograms decorating the final set should be historically accurate. "If authenticity is worth going for at all, it's worth going for 100 per cent."

Two hundred teenagers turned up for auditions last November. Casting the story's 13-year-old victim and 13-year-old heroine was no problem, but the part of the chief bully had to be advertised in the local papers. Each main role was double-cast, partly to take the strain off young voices, partly to give more performers a chance. The handful of adult roles are being filled by leading operatic professionals, including Omar Ebrahim and Mary King.

A straw poll among the juve leads reveals that almost all want a stage career: none seem put off by its penury and precariousness. A boy whom I first notice doing backflips and casually balancing upside-down on a chair turns out to be a champion tumbler, with designs on the next Olympics. Another wants to be a professional mountain-biker (professions sound fun these days). Some have already worked as operatic extras; those for whom this is a first experience are high on the excitement, though in many cases visibly shocked to discover, during rehearsals, that the part which has engulfed their lives is a mere brush-stroke on the grander canvas. The alternative casts are being exceptionally nice about each other, gallantly praising one another's qualities, though rivalries - surprise, surprise - are discernible beneath the surface.

On the day I attend rehearsals, the technical director is totting up the cost of 42 monkey-suits and tails; the score, with its clever interweaving of pro and amateur voices, is still - 14 days from curtain-up - in final gestation; and the conductor, Andrea Quinn (already an old hand at dealing with young performers thanks to her regular job as Music Director of the London Philharmonic Youth Orchestra), is trying to induce her novice opera singers to project their sound. This is their first day in the real auditorium, and they are fazed by the yawning chasm of the pit. When they reach the end of the run-through, and the chief ink-monkey crawls back into his master's drawer, the stage is full of misty eyes and lumps in throats. For this is Glyndebourne. And this is them doing it.

`Misper': schools matinee 2pm Thurs (all seats pounds 5); public performances 7pm Fri, 2pm/7pm Sat (children pounds 5/pounds 7, adults pounds 7/pounds 9), at Glyndebourne Opera House, nr Lewes, East Sussex. Booking: 01273 815025