Previews: Sweetness and Badness, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff

Youth opera to get children on the right track
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The Independent Culture

Making a name for himself very fast at present is composer Will Todd. While his jazz-based Mass in Blue was released last month by Signum, his music-theatre piece The Screams of Kitty Genovese was premiering in New York, and his chamber opera Whirlwind opened atThe Sage, Gateshead. To cap it all, his new opera for young people, Sweetness and Badness, is to be unveiled at Wales Millennium Centre.

The impetus behind this work came from a train company which wanted to sponsor a piece about rail safety for Welsh National Opera's youth wing. While rail statistics had shown that 14- to 17-year-olds were the group most likely to die on the tracks, opera-house statistics had shown that that same group were the least likely to enter an opera house: a fruitful synergy was the result. Todd and his librettist Michael Wicherek were put together to see if they got on. "We did instantly," says Todd. "Partly because neither of us has much ego. He insisted straight off that we absolutely must not hammer the message - with which I completely agreed. You engage them through character and story."

This story concerns five young people doing dares at the mouth of a tunnel - running the line in front of a train, with the weakest getting killed. "It's a dark story about adolescence, risk-taking, love, and death," says Todd. "With writers, I just let the words wash over me and dictate the style, and what emerged this time was jazzy and chromatic: maybe that's in response to the characters' jagged and fractured adolescence."

With a small instrumental line-up plus professional singers, the show's workshops have apparently drawn an enthusiastic response. "The young audiences have been thrilled by the sound of the unamplified human voice - they normally never hear acoustic voices, and have no idea what they can do. If all they take away from this is the idea that the human voice can be satisfactorily heard acoustically, I will feel I've achieved something."

Wednesday (08700 402 000)

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