Wigs, candelabra, action!

Emma Brooker looks at the expensive but rewarding process of bringing opera to inner-city schools
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First the grand piano was delivered by truck, then came the portable candelabra, followed by a cast of 14 professional opera singers in full costume, backed up by six technical staff. The venue? Not Glyndebourne, but West Acton Primary School's main hall. The troupe went on to give a two-hour performance of Verdi's Rigoletto, in the original Italian, to an audience of several hundred eight-to-12-year-olds from three local schools.

The critical reception was overwhelmingly positive. Nobody walked out during the interval, and far from being booed off their temporary stage, the performers were mobbed afterwards by children demanding autographs. Hossein Taki, Daryl Turner and the rest of their 12-year-old classmates from Twyford High School were favourably impressed.

"I liked it much better than I expected," said Hossein afterwards. "Following the story wasn't a problem, even though they were singing in Italian, and even the humour came across. I'd definitely like to see more," he concludes - a young opera buff in the making.

Daryl liked the closing scene, in which Rigoletto goes to collect the body of the Duke of Mantua, whose assassination he had arranged, and finds, instead, his dying daughter bundled into the sack. The children's music teacher, Angela Bryant, plans to get them to compose a rap version of the opera, now that they have seen a classical rendition.

Taking opera into inner-city schools may sound like the worst kind of misguided idealism - the cultural equivalent of "let them eat cake" - but performances by Pavilion Opera Educational Trust have been rapturously received by children in schools from Brixton to Southall, Tower Hamlets to Cleveland.

Pavilion's productions, unabridged and always in the original language, make no concessions to their young audiences, forcing them instead to take on board the real, unadulterated thing. The idea is to challenge the children to enjoy a new art form.

"These sort of events are so important for breaking down barriers," says Angela Bryant. "When you first say 'opera', the children just imagine something that is not for them, inaccessible and mysterious. Opera is like a secret garden. You can take children to the gate, to something that is very exciting and special and involves so many different disciplines."

But extensive preparatory work is essential if the children are to get anything from the productions. Each one-off afternoon performance costs about pounds 6,000 to stage.

Pavilion (funded entirely by sponsors, mainly corporate) will visit schools only on the condition that children spend the weeks prior to their visit working on a project on the opera's story, characters and music.

Freddie Stockdale, a Pavilion trustee, vets schools in advance to gauge the enthusiasm of head and teachers and test the school hall's acoustics. "My remit is to go to inner-city schools where music is not generally on the menu," he says. If the school is chosen for a performance, resumes of the story and characters are sent for children to study.

Stockdale visits again later to quiz pupils on the forthcoming production. "I'm checking to see whether their teachers have done their work," he smiles drily, adding that a third of the time, to his annoyance, they have not.

Stockdale also claims that it is more often teachers who are resistant to opera. "They say: 'It's not what our children are interested in.'" But Stockdale reckons that as long as he can get opera to inner-city audiences between the ages of eight and 14, the chances are that they will take to it. Younger children's developing inner ears could in fact be damaged by opera's louder moments, while teenagers soon become resistant to its high-brow image and snobbish connotations, explains Stockdale. "But the younger children are so open-minded. I tell them the worst that can happen is that they have the most boring afternoon of their life."

In four years of performing in schools since the trust was founded, boredom has rarely been the response, and Stockdale finds plenty of interest when he talks to children about the diversity of jobs available in opera, from stage management to choreography and tailoring.

When West Acton Primary teacher Linda Fairley first asked her class of eight- to nine-year-olds what they knew about opera, they said they had seen it on TV but usually switched over. Since then her class has been acclimatising to the unfamiliar sound by listening to Verdi during break times. At first they put their hands over their ears, but before long they were starting to sing the melodies.

For the first few minutes of the production, some of the younger children looked slightly confused and overwhelmed as bewigged performers swept in and out of the school hall, bellowing at each other in Italian. But once they had identified the lead characters,they became absorbed in the fast-moving plot and exaggerated emotions.

Bryant points out that opera works on so many different levels - visual, musical and theatrical - that it is bound to appeal to children on at least one of them. Follow-up work gives her scope to make the most of pupils' diverse abilities, accommodating musical, acting and set-designing talents in one project.

And while children often like opera, opera houses are increasingly keen to get involved with educational work. Bryant had a week's placement at English National Opera and also arranged for production staff from the Royal Opera House to spend two weeks composing an opera with her pupils.

Such work is not entirely altruistic. Opera houses clearly see the need to cultivate future audiences if they are to survive well into the millennium.

Pavilion Opera Educational Trust, Thorpe Tilney Hall, Near Lincoln LN4 3 SL; tel: 01526 378231.