Next lesson: a Mozart aria

Teenagers brought up on soul, rock and rap didn't want to bother with opera - until a real-life soprano turned up in their classroom. By Diana Hinds
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The Independent Online
How do you get teenagers interested in opera? A new project by the English National Opera is based on the belief that you need not only real live musicians in school, but computer technology to help pupils to compose, and, as a starting point, a good classical aria. Not just any aria, mind you. Cherubino's "Non so pi" from Act 1 of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro means little to a young audience when sung in Italian; but translated into English - "Now I'm burning, now I'm made of ice ... Every woman makes me change colour, every woman makes me tremble" - has considerably more to offer.

Asked to develop their own compositions using Cherubino as inspiration, GCSE pupils from three Westminster schools came up with three principal themes: living dangerously, lust, and a fascination with the opposite sex.

"Our theme was lust for life - but what we've done is write about someone who hasn't got a lust for life," Sarah Reynolds, 15, of Greycoat Hospital, explains. Her group's composition begins, in doleful, teenage fashion, "There's no way out ...".

Andrew Parmley, director of music at Greycoat Hospital, says there was a certain hostility to the idea of opera before the ENO team arrived. "The attitude was, we don't like opera - we're not going to get involved. I sensed quite a lot of bristling the first time we heard the soprano, Adey Grummet, sing the aria."

But with a background in jazz and shows, as well as in classical music, Adey's versatility soon began to win them round. The youngsters discussed the different aspects of Cherubino's character, bringing to it their own experiences. They met instrumentalists from the ENO (violin, viola, bassoon - "what's that tube?" - and percussion) and they listened to a light-hearted account of the aria by David Benke, a composer who is taking part in the project. Then they set to work, in small groups, to produce their own songs for Adey Grummet and the five players to perform.

"It's been a bit harder than what we usually do, because we have had to work around something, rather than just making it up," Colette Tirimo, 14, says.

Lucy Fernie, 15, says: "In our compositions we usually get stuck either on the music or the words. But in this project, when we've been stuck they have given us ideas. It's been good to have people around who know quite a lot about it."

Andrew Parmley says it has been "refreshing to have another angle on composition; it can be a thankless task at times trying to get a spark out of them." Music is increasingly popular at GCSE - 20 pupils this year, and 30 next, at Greycoat's - and unlike in the past, pupils need not already be accomplished instrumentalists to take the subject.

That is where appropriate knowledge of computer technology can be enormously beneficial. Pupils with musical imagination but unable to read or write music can use an electronic keyboard, connected by a digital interface to the computer, to devise, play, record and score their own compositions. Through the computer they also have access to a range of simulated instruments. That introduces them to ideas of musical texture, impossible to grasp on a keyboard alone.

Unfortunately for Greycoat Hospital, that important dimension of the project has failed to materialise, because recently acquired technology proved to be faulty. Pupils have not received the extra stimulus to composition that was intended, and have had to rely on staff and team members to notate their compositions for them. But at the other two schools taking part, St George's School and St Marylebone School, computer-aided composition has really taken off, according to Anthony Mellor, ENO's systems support manager, resulting in a catchy soul number and some complex rap.

For those three schools, the project (which will continue over three years) culminates after two months with a performance of The Marriage of Figaro at the London Coliseum. Many of the pupils have never been to the opera before, and the hope of those leading the project is that they should now feel more familiar with at least some aspects of Mozart.

But in terms of the pupils' own compositions - predominantly soul, rock and rap - the influence of classical music has yet to make itself felt.

"They haven't moved out of the sound world that they know - and we need to develop that," says Steve Moffat, head of the Baylis programme, the ENO's education unit. "Their own culture is so dominant, and we have to recognise it's there, embrace it, and try to encourage some sort of fusion"