Observations: Glyndebourne gets down with the kids
Friday 12 March 2010
With wounded soldiers shipped in to Covent Garden by the egregious Joanna Lumley, and the idiocies of Popstar to Operastar giving way to Kiri Te Kanawa's X Factor-style search for talent on Radio 2, one might think that the campaign to widen opera's audience has been hijacked by showbiz. But that would be to discount the heroic work done by opera-company education departments, and above all by their brand-leaders at Glyndebourne. Since 1990, Glyndebourne's head of education, Katie Tearle, has presided over a series of brilliant events in which local children have been induced to put on operas dealing with subjects that are as near the knuckle today as the rough-trade exploits of Don Giovanni were for 18th-century Vienna.
Recently, the story of King Arthur was updated to a 21st-century urban wasteland in a libretto by Nicky Singer, who had been inspired by an encounter with an "antisocial" youth on a Holloway estate: her realisation that "respect" was a modern version of medieval knightly honour became the pivotal idea for a plot translating Arthurian symbolism into the terms of turf wars and street-gang rituals.
Knight Crew was a community project, with a 50-strong amateur chorus selected through workshops in schools and youth centres, then through "skills" workshops and auditions. The chorus was given a top-dressing of six professional singers and the 50 amateur players in the orchestra were beefed up with 50 professional instrumentalists.
The moment the curtain lifted on Es Devlin's giant, rotating cube, on to which a desperate face was projected while the modern-day Arthur launched into a plangent recitative, we knew that we were in safe hands. The orchestral sound was marvellously translucent and the vocal line could have come from Britten: Glyndebourne's first composer-in-residence, Julian Philips, is a master of pastiche. And when the Knight Crew made their appearance, dimly lit and drably costumed like creatures from the underworld, one sensed the director John Fulljames's sure touch.
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