The young person's guide to the opera

Scottish Opera may be deep in crisis, but in The Minotaur, it is boldly staging a groundbreaking work for children
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The Independent Culture

"Opera can blow you away or bore you to death," admits Julian Evans, composer of Scottish Opera's first full-scale professional opera for children, The Minotaur. He and the rest of the creative team are determined that this opera will be, if not mind-blowing, then at least an intriguing introduction to the medium. "I want to lead children, and adults too, into the labyrinth through the music."

The commission was a tall order, in that the performances of The Minotaur in theatres in five Scottish cities represent the high point of the biggest single education project offered by any British or European opera company. It also comes at a crucial stage in the history of Scottish Opera, when its very future is in jeopardy.

The staged version of The Minotaur has all the features of any proper opera - recitatives, arias, duets, ensembles and a chorus - and is through-composed, simply telling a story in words and music. A cast of seven young professional singers, playing the central roles and doubling in smaller parts, is joined by a dancer who - virtually naked but with fantastic head and body make-up - plays the Minotaur. Though the band, with just seven players, is smaller than standard opera orchestras, the score is no less inventive for that. "There's magical music for the Oracle, weird sounds for the sorceress, low trombone for the Minotaur, tragedy spelt out on the cello, and a twisty theme that, leitmotif-like, is developed to represent Theseus's journey. Percussion plays an important part, with the eerie tones of a waterphone adding splashes of colour and anguished heavy breathing for the blood-curdling Minotaur itself," says Evans.

For most of the children seeing and hearing The Minotaur, it will be their first experience of opera. Thanks to an ambitious series of schools workshops, they'll be familiar with many of the tunes, recognise the characters, understand the story and, with luck, feel quite at home with the art form. They'll be far better equipped than a lot of adults, then, for many of whom the word "opera" still triggers alarm bells - it's incomprehensible, not relevant, not for them. Scottish Opera for All aims to break down those preconceptions by demystifying the whole process. Its tour is giving 10,000 schoolchildren, aged between eight and 14, the chance to make their own version of the music-drama through an ambitious series of creative workshops.

Mark Hathaway is the director of The Minotaur. Along with its librettist, Allan Dunn, he has selected strands of the long and complicated myth of Theseus and the Minotaur that make the narrative clear and unambiguous. "We wanted it to have a contemporary relevance, so we've used modern-day costumes alongside ancient Greek; in that way, Theseus's journey is gradually reflected in his clothes, from trainers to the sword and sandals he finds under the stone. After Medea has thrown poisoned wine in his face, he puts on a Greek tunic, or chiton, and when he finally enters the labyrinth, he has added a breastplate and been transformed into the complete Greek hero. At the end of story, when he has lost Ariadne, and his father, King Aegeus, has died, he faces up to his grief and adulthood in modern clothes again. He's transformed into an adult by his journey, and, of course, there's a moral there.

"Children are astonishingly receptive to epic stories, especially since The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter," Hathaway adds. "The more extraordinary and vivid the characters, the easier it seems to become to grasp the hidden mysteries of myths."

In the familiar surroundings of their schools, the children will have met opera singers and animateurs, not to mention a big, black, fluffy Minotaur with golden horns. They'll have created laurel crowns, drawn their personal Minoan seal, made warrior greaves (useful in protecting shins in playground battles), improvised their own show and explored every aspect of the story, from the geography, history and mythology to its emotional and social implications, with an introduction to the Greek language.

A CD-rom gives the answers to questions that many of us would have liked to know when we first went to an opera. What does everyone do? What happens backstage? How does the scenery work? What is an orchestra? It's all tied in to the school curriculum and sounds to me like the best value £600 package that a school could invest in.

And then there's the Minotaur comic strip. Created by Iain Piercy, it's the fun bit of the schools' tie-in teaching pack and relates to the staged opera in its vivid use of blue, terracotta, black and red. "Projections and animations are something children understand from computer games," Hathaway says. "So, from the page, I've developed ideas on to the stage. For example, in the opera, to get inside the labyrinth, Theseus enters the eye of King Minos, and he - and we with him - is drawn down winding passages and is lost in the maze of his mind before confronting the Minotaur. For the walking sequence of Theseus, I had to apply a labour-intensive, old-fashioned style, drawing 300 images for 20 seconds of effect."

All those I spoke to have been so excited and changed by their encounter with opera that they are approaching this project with an almost missionary zeal. The production is costing £250,000 to create, build and rehearse; a further £24,000 is needed to stage each performance. It's a drop in the ocean compared with the £400,000 Scottish Opera spent on its latest new production, La Bohème. At a time when SO's whole future looks perilous and it can't guarantee its employees a secure future, when it's unable to announce a programme for 2004/5 or sign contracts, and when the likelihood is that it will cease trading as a full-time company, it's a brave and visionary gesture. Scotland's Culture minister, Frank McAveety, has announced a wide-ranging cultural review, which comes too late to save the opera company. While £30m has been found to rescue Scottish football, and tens of millions more pounds are being poured in to fund the completion of the new Scottish Parliament building, the Scottish Executive should grasp the ball of string and find a solution to the complicated mess that has arisen with Scottish Opera.

The Minotaur project will be the centrepiece of a major conference in Glasgow, with European opera administrators and educationists coming to the city to see how they can learn from this model. That those in government are at last recognising the value of the arts is to be welcomed, though Jane Davidson, Scottish Opera for All's head of education, has the tiny reservation that while arts and culture are perfect for delivering other messages, "they are not only issue-based tools - they've got to be recognised as fun and fantastic and fascinating in their own right."

She got into opera as a dresser at Glasgow's Theatre Royal when she was 17 and was hooked at the excitement of Cavalli's L'Egisto even though she was only applying gold paint to the buttocks of the men in the chorus. "It made me realise that it was all very human as well as magical, ordinary as well as special, and highly professional as well."

If she and her Minotaur team put even half of that across to just some of these children, they will have achieved a great deal indeed.

'The Minotaur', Theatre Royal, Glasgow (0141-332 9000) from Friday to 19 May; Festival Theatre, Edinburgh (0131-529 6000) 27 to 29 May; then touring to Aberdeen, Dundee and Inverness (