I read Susan Elkin’s piece for The Independent, ‘Why are educationists so afraid of cultural excellence?’ with much nodding of my head. I am particularly passionate about promoting living artists in my teaching – right from Year 4 upwards – and also ensuring pupils are engaging with as much music as they can, from a broad range of styles. No dumbing down.
Why can’t we celebrate that which is great with children rather than apologetically putting them off? Any teacher could familiarise children with, say, The Marriage of Figaro by playing recordings (all those fabulous tunes) sharing film and working on the story. You can appreciate opera without necessarily buying an expensive ticket. And for those who want to take children to see opera at first hand, almost every opera house has an enthusiastic education department and many of them stage events for children. School-based projects are quite usual and I know of several opera companies involving children in community operas this summer. The Royal Opera House which has a £25,787,886 Arts Council grant this year rising to £26,430.076 in 2014/15 has, rightly, an education department second to none and offers many opportunities to children and young people. But they won’t be able to avail themselves of any of this without commitment from teachers and parents.
Opera does appear to have much social stigma, which is a real shame. I co-led with a colleague a partnership project between two schools focusing on introducing opera to a group of Year 8 pupils. They interacted via a virtual learning platform, undertaking a variety of tasks following trips to different operas and including chances to meet opera-related professionals and see backstage. The result? They were gripped. With some guidance, and discussion, the pupils did not attach any stigma to opera but could start to see it as the predecessor of not only the musical but perhaps even film. Opera shows the emotional power of music, and with some careful choices of opera (perhaps starting in one’s native language) pupils can be encouraged to engage with this exciting genre.
The composer Luciano Berio used composition as a way of responding to a musical work; pupils can truly engage with opera by devising their own. I was excited to read about the 24-hour opera created at Purcell School; composition students and singers devising and preparing the new opera for performance all within the space of 24 hours, and fuelled by regular snacks. What a fantastic idea to make opera relevant to young composers. It remains a genre full of possibility and pupils are often impressed by the recent developments, for example Sunken Garden (Michel van der Aa, ENO) involving 3D video and Judith Weir’s Miss Fortune (ROH) including street dance.
I hope opera will persist and encourage young people to come to it, rather than create productions that some how ‘dumb-down’ the art form to make it more approachable. Susan Elkin writes that the ‘Royal Opera House which has a £25,787,886 Arts Council grant this year rising to £26,430.076 in 2014/15 has, rightly, an education department second to none and offers many opportunities to children and young people. But they won’t be able to avail themselves of any of this without commitment from teachers and parents’. I’m fully committed to ensuring my students engage with opera and writing it. After hearing of the success of Purcell School’s 24 Hour Opera I hope more will take on the challenge. I know I will.