Oh yes, you can stop the music

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The Independent Online
WHILE music snobs air their distaste for open-air opera, country house opera and opera accessible to the masses, the British public has taken to it like ducks to water.

It all began when the BBC chose Pavarotti's rendition of Nessun Dorma as its theme tune for the 1990 World Cup. Suddenly thousands who would no more have expected to go to the opera than to the moon were introduced to one of its more enduring melodies.

Then came opera in Hyde Park. Princess Di was there, even grey John Major. More to the point, thousands who had never been to Covent Garden or Glyndebourne turned up. But Covent Garden realised what was up and started putting its performances on to big screens outside in the piazza where those who couldn't afford the pounds 50 tickets could watch - and they did in their hundreds.

And to anyone studying this spectacle, what was really surprising was that most of those flocking to this new experience were not the elderly middle classes but teenagers and even younger.

This has been translated into sales. EMI has noted an increased interest in opera, as the casual buyer has flocked to the classics counter. Opera compilations sell up to 100,000 more copies than they did five years ago.

What the snobs may really be railing against is that an opera-illiterate nation now stands on the threshold of mass enlightenment. It would not be the first time a generation of talented children was fired by a popular personality: James Galway inspired countless young flautists and Jacqueline du Pre a nation of cellists.

But those aspiring young musicians had the advantage, now sadly lacking, of tuition available in schools and colleges that was the envy of western Europe. We have more well-trained musicians than anywhere else, but they look like being the last. The prospects for Britain producing a new generation of first-class opera singers inspired by Pavarotti look bleak indeed.

The leading conservatoires have traditionally taken in gifted children from as young as eight to 18 on Saturdays. Funded by their local boroughs they have come from all over the country, some travelling from Scotland on the sleepers. But cutbacks in local authority spending are threatening the continued ability of at least some of the academies to provide places for talented juniors.

And for the first time there are worries about the right children coming forward. Trinity College in London may not be able to fill its 50 places next year because of the cuts in music education at the primary level.

According to Derek Aviss, Deputy Principal of Trinity College of Music, 'We have come from a very healthy scene and are faced with a return to where we were after the war. In the future we may be recruiting from a limited pool where people are more likely to see music as just a hobby. A situation where those who can't pay won't play.'

A look at the majority of primary school orchestras is enough to confirm the worst fears. The children are almost all those whose parents can afford to pay for private tuition.

There are rooms full of instruments locked up in schools throughout the land for most of the week. They are given brief airings while children listen with teacher and generally mess about to fulfil a music curriculum which is almost all form and very little content. There is no longer a requirement to play an instrument with any degree of competence.

To put in perspective what is being thrown away, as many as 65 per cent of musicians playing in orchestras had their first experience of a musical instrument at a state primary school.

The tragedy is that the explosion of interest in opera has little chance of being sustained. A few children will be lucky enough to get a start in small parts in professional opera productions. Cast in the role of the shepherd boy in Tosca, part of London's Holland Park Opera season, are Noeleen Comiskey and Rebecca Daker, a typical-looking pair of schoolgirls you'd expect to find glued to pop on their personal stereos.

Noeleen, aged 17, came to opera through Nessun Dorma and, 'because pop is going through a very dull phase. It's become visually and musically boring. But if you'd said I'd ever be interested in opera and saving up to go I wouldn't have believed you. I certainly never thought I'd sing in one. I love it.'

Rebecca heard Kiri Te Kanawa singing jazz when she was eight. She got hooked by the voice and moved on to the operatic pieces. There was no turning back, and even her parents, previously not opera-goers, have been caught up by her interest and determination.

For a 15-year-old she is astonishingly single-minded. 'I want to be an opera singer, nothing else. I'm going to study modern languages to help learn the parts.'

They are the lucky ones. Their younger sisters and brothers can look forward to a scant musical education, if any. Much has been made of the damage to the nation's economic foundation in the last decade. We may now be witnessing the destruction of our cultural infrastructure as well.

Beatrix Campbell is on holiday.