Glyndebourne's fantastic voyage

From schools to prisons, Glyndebourne is taking opera out of its idyllic rural home and into the community
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If the test for a myth is endless adaptability, consider this rap for the hapless bird-catcher who frames Mozart's Magic Flute: "This is the story of a sacrifice/ Of a man who's left to his own device/ He's got no children/ He's got no wife/ This is the start of a whole new life./ Had to give up his love in an awful way/ Had to leave behind his birds of prey/ Deep in his heart he has nothing to say/ Just a lonely young man who's destined to stray..."

Unfussy and direct, these verses come from a group of inmates in Lewes prison, whose experience has much in common with Papageno's. We get the full story, and also the heartache that goes with it; few professional librettists could have done better, and many would have done worse. They've taken the original opera's characters and put them through a series of modern-day trials: while Papageno is a sad bad boy, Mozart's errant prince Tamino is given a problematic family background, and is shown acquiring humility and maturity. And they've put it into their own language.

It's 50 years since Glyndebourne's John Christie first took opera into the prison near his bosky retreat, but his successors are still building on his work. They sent in a director, a musician, and an artist, who induced 15 male convicts to produce a version of the Flute which they renamed "The Refiners' Challenge", in which destiny and rites of passage loom appropriately large. Ideal group therapy for the men, it seems, and yet another vindication of the ideas of Glyndebourne's feisty education head, Katie Tearle.

Meanwhile, down the road in Newhaven, her team have been putting the Flute to a very different use: dwelling as it does on the meaning of growing up - and the perils of transition - it has become the text for a project following a group of children as they graduate from primary to secondary school. "These kids knew all about Papageno and Papagena," says Suzanne Graham-Dixon, who observed the project's progress. "They envied the three boys, reckoned Tamino had a hard time knowing who to trust, thought Pamina a 'luscious lady' with a very dodgy mum, and decided that Sarastro would fit in well at Hogwarts." The boys, she noted, were particularly keen on the trials by fire and water, and the privilege of joining Sarastro's brotherhood: "No one will ever convince this lot that opera is for cissies."

Last week these children got to see the opera for real, courtesy of Glyndebourne On Tour, which is about to begin its annual peregrination round the land. After completing its home-turf stint, GOT will visit Woking, Milton Keynes, Norwich, Plymouth, Stoke-on-Trent and Oxford, all of which will see La Bohème and Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as Adrian Noble's Magic Flute. And in each of these towns the Glyndebourne education team will be going full blast, using workshops and school visits to bring the operas to life for young audiences, and to bring out the continuing relevance of the questions they raise. "My concern is with the present, not with the future," says Tearle. "I'm not interested in saying 'Let's build an audience who will start coming to us when they're in their forties.' It's got to be now."

This is echoed by Edward Gardner, the young conductor who will take the podium in each of the above cities for La Bohème. He got bitten by the bug at 13 when he saw David Pountney's pantomimic Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk at the Coliseum; his first experience of Wagner was when Covent Garden ripped out their stalls and welcomed in a youthful clientele at £4 per head. "Not even Pelléas is inaccessible," he says, "but audiences need some training to get a handle on it - hence our workshops." He regards Jonathan Dove's Flight (set in an airport, premiered at Glyndebourne, and now being produced round the world) and John Lunn's Tangier Tattoo (a new work about gap-year backpacking in Morocco, commissioned for next year's tour, and a sequel to Lunn's successful school operas Misper and Zoe) as quintessentially right for creating the audiences of tomorrow.

But as Glyndebourne's general director David Pickard points out, the correlation is not quite that simple: "New commissions are vital, and they can bring in an audience who wouldn't otherwise have come. But you can fall into a trap by thinking new audiences will come via new composers. My moment of getting hooked was not seeing Taverner at Covent Garden - it was seeing Don Pasquale, when something clicked for me."

Glyndebourne's summer festival may be the self-financing wonder of the operatic world, but its tour needs every penny of its £1m Arts Council grant, even with furniture giant MFI chipping in with £50,000 this year to fund the workshops. And as Pickard points out, it's still not fail-safe: last year's ticket sales were fine for La Traviata, but dropped disastrously whenever Idomeneo was on the menu. This failure must in part have been due to the unfair critical drubbing Peter Sellars's show received in many quarters: Anish Kapoor's abstract set and Sellar's understated references to the Iraq war were used as sticks with which to beat what was actually a beautiful production.

But Pickard also attributes the sales-slump to the fact that this isn't household-name Mozart. "But we have to keep a balance. If we only took rock-solid sell-out shows on the road, we'd be defaulting on an important part of our mission, which is to give people the opportunity to hear operas they otherwise wouldn't. Pelléas may not sell out on this tour, but it's absolutely right that we should take it round the country." Indeed, there's a piquancy in the notion of this delicate Freudian fantasy being staged in Ukip-supporting, paedophile-bashing - yes, I know that's only half the story - Plymouth.

Glyndebourne isn't the only company that tours, but it's hit on an ideal formula for using its tour to renew itself, with singers following a now-accepted progression from a place in the chorus, to a lead role on tour, to a fully-fledged lead in the summer festival. It's not generally remembered that Roberto Alagna made his British debut 18 years ago in Glyndebourne's touring Traviata. This year's touring group is packed with young musicians who are rapidly on their way, not least 29-year-old Gardner, for whom a glittering international career may beckon.

Toby Stafford-Allen, GOT's young and ebullient Papageno, is another case in point, with a trajectory he describes as accidental. After beginning his musical life in Grimsby's choir school, he was bet by a friend that he couldn't win a local singing competition, and won. Then he was persuaded to audition for the National Youth Choir, and to his surprise got in. Then the same thing happened with the World Youth Choir, then he stumbled into the Royal Northern College of Music, from which he modestly expected to emerge as a pop singer - but here he is. He's both amused and bemused.

Mélisande will be sung by the young Swedish mezzo Tove Dahlberg, who worked as a journalist and jazz singer before realising her true vocation. She's already had five roles created for her, and has trenchant views on how composers should - and should not - write. "They should study the voice a little more," she says. "Some just don't understand how it works - you can't ask for nothing but high notes as you can from string instruments. I think some composers find it amusing to write stuff which is difficult to sing. They also need to understand the difference between lyric and dramatic voices, as composers did in the 19th century - they really did know how to write for different kinds of voice. You can get vocally damaged by being asked to sing in ways which don't suit your apparatus." Ariel's stratospheric tessitura in Tom Ades's new opera The Tempest is in her view an obvious case in point.

Preparing to quit this enchanted Sussex idyll, I run into GOT's French Pamina. Valérie Condoluci is a former teacher who has only sung professionally for four years, and she's astonished to find herself here. "To be in this beautiful place, among the sheep and the rabbits - it's magic, like nowhere else in the world." Moreover, Pamina is the role she's always dreamed of. "It was the first score I ever bought, and it's also the story of my real life at the moment." How so? "You meet someone, life seems beautiful, then there are obstacles..." Somebody in the cast? No, she's too coy to say. Taking my leave, I wish her well with her obstacles.

Glyndebourne On Tour is at its home theatre this week, then touring to 4 December (0870 6063502;