Purple wigs and flying handbags bring opera into the classroom

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The Independent Online
Think opera is all about fat ladies singing? Seven-year-olds at south London primary schools can tell you otherwise. Lucy Ward, Education Correspondent, listens in on music lessons with a difference.

As far as class 3P at East Sheen Primary School is concerned, opera comes in a purple punk wig and pink tights and stomps around throwing its handbag about. What is more, it does not happen in another language on a distant stage, but right in front of you in your classroom. And - and this is best of all - you can join in.

Class 3P are only seven or eight years old, but yesterday they were treated to an early taste of Mozart, Handel and Ravel thanks to the Curious Opera Group. The company, based in Teddington, south-west London, sends a team of three professional performers - a mezzo-soprano, a pianist and a director/conductor - into primary schools to help youngsters explore the link between feelings and music.

For the 30 members of Mrs Pemberton's class, the emotion being musically explored yesterday quickly became apparent. They had barely settled cross- legged in the school hall, when the singer Harriet Roberts, in Jennings- style grey shorts and half-mast socks as the naughty child who will not do his homework from Ravel's opera L'Enfant et les Sortileges, stamped angrily in front of them.

Without warning or introduction, Harriet burst into song at full volume, prompting hand-over-mouth shock, giggles, suspicion and sheer wide-eyed amazement. Unexpected opera never fails to have an effect, according to Curious Opera's organiser Anne Hornby.

Led by Lynn Binstock, workshop co-ordinator and head of staff directors at English National Opera, Class 3P worked out just why the naughty child was angry, and compared his frustration with the miserable fury of Dorabella, the betrayed sweetheart in Mozart's Cosi fan Tutte who wept beneath her purple wig and tossed her pink handbag and stuffed toys around the room.

Gathering round the piano, they composed, sang and acted a phrase describing their own feelings when angry - a heartfelt "I get really, really, really in rage" - before creating their own cardboard "Pandora's Box" filled with collage materials to represent anger.

Encouraging young children to explore angry emotions can bring revelations, according to Ms Binstock. "A lot comes out about families, and bothers and sisters or parents being unfair. In one school, we could really feel something bubbling up and it turned out the kids were upset about the dinner ladies ordering them about. We did a whole dinner ladies number."

David Ford, head of East Sheen, laments the lack of time for such sessions as the pressures of the national curriculum combine with parents' ever- rising interest in the three Rs. "There is a greater place for groups like Curious Opera than ever before - they provide schools with the opportunity to give kids experiences we may not have the resources to provide any more."

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