Lyre education: The Dolphin Opera aims to put on a professional show with community participants. Roberta Mock, shadow director, examines the pitfalls

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The Independent Culture
A year ago I was interviewed for a job as a drama outreach worker and was asked whether I liked opera. The answer being a confused 'Yes', I was subsequently offered a placement as a 'shadow director' on Arion and the Dolphin, a large-scale community opera project initiated by the Baylis Programme at English National Opera in Plymouth.

The 'shadow' moniker proved particularly apt. From September 1993 up to this week's premiere, I have mainly lurked quietly on the sidelines, observing the process which has co-ordinated the placement of 350 performers on a cavernous stage. Arion and the Dolphin, written by Vikram Seth and composer Alec Roth, features four professional singers in its principal roles and more than 200 schoolchildren playing dolphins. The rest of the chorus is made up of members of the local community and my drama students at the University of Plymouth (Exmouth).

The project set itself the ambitious task of working towards a volatile mixture of theatre- in-education, community theatre, and polished professionalism. The chances of success, serving the aims of three models, were precarious. At the beginning of the rehearsal period, the opera's director, Rebecca Meitlis, identified the 'creative process' as its distinguishing feature. 'This has resulted in a musical framework that encourages all the performers - at every level - to make a creative contribution.'

In fact, the only chorus members to be offered personal artistic input were the schoolchildren, in particular the four school groups who developed and composed two-minute scenes, or 'bubbles', which were set within the opera. But although charming, the eight minutes of 'bubble' time on stage are theatrically ineffective.

This perhaps explains why the work with the adult chorus, playing Sicilian and Corinthian fisherfolk, sacrificed process for product. I know that my drama students have benefited immensely from their first contact with a previously inaccessible art form: by working with high- calibre professionals. Their expectations have expanded, and they have discovered that opera singers are 'real people'. But they have felt stifled by their lack of real creative input, and frustrated by their lack of skills-based training during the project. Their treatment has been alternately patronising (being shown numerous times how to place a candle on the floor) and over-demanding (having to sing difficult passages while moving with no real instruction on vocal technique).

For those of us who believe that 'community theatre' means theatre for and by the community, the Dolphin Opera cannot be seen as a success in this regard. The irony of the opera being performed on a naval base where participants needed passes, effectively translated as 'permission' to perform in a community project, has not gone unnoticed.

The Dolphin Opera will inevitably be considered a template for future music theatre work in the South West. Many of us will only accept the model with modification.

'Arion and the Dolphin', Drill Shed, HMS Drake, Plymouth (0752 267222) to 19 Jun

(Photograph omitted)