Opera in education

I felt hugely lucky to be part of the development of Royal Opera House’s Create and Sing. I was a few years into my own singing lessons and but virtue of these lessons being with the tenor Ian Caley operatic arias were part of my vocal diet. A great deal of the developmental process, that I experienced, on Create and Sing was digging into what dramatic singing is; the Create and Sing programme wanted to enhance understanding and the experience of dramatic singing (as being distinct to choral singing, for example). Though I recall this was not easy to achieve; acquiescence around ‘dramatic’ singing was difficult. The synergy of music and drama were at the heart of the work, and I had the opportunity to work specifically on the scheme of work aspects, and the sequencing of the activities to form the various resource for schools. I contributed to both Carmen and Hansel and Gretel, and loved attending a workshop for the latter as the various activities were explored.

I did sing in a few amateur operas. I needed to experience the art form from the inside; Prince Philippe in Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement was an early attempt, and this was followed quickly with Tamino in Mozart’s Magic Flute. I struggled with being the character. Though at the interval of the Flute (performed in Ealing) a friend (a professional singer) remarked how convincing my fear of the serpent was in the opening scene; nerves really had gotten the better of me. But I found the experience thrilling. The nature of learning the role was far different to learning works on piano and flute. Being coaching was demanding, and I was grateful for the expertise of incredible coaches (some at the ROH) who indulged my need for expert coaching despite being an amateur tenor.

I was already hooked on opera before my amateur singing experience. Highlights for me being Punch and Judy by Birtwistle, but since leaving school I’ve experienced more than I can count. But at school I only saw one: Don Giovanni. I remember forgetting my glasses and due to the school booking seats being near the ceiling I didn’t see much. Despite not seeing well I was captivated by the singing.

The recent ENO news is striking. Like ROH they’ve contributed widely to music education and developed an award winning experience for those suffering long-term effects of Covid-19. Opera North has a rich programme of learning and participation too. As do other companies in the UK. Opera appears determined to connect with children and young people through and beyond schools. As a Head of Music I invited a team of practitioners to work on an opera in a day (excerpts!) and the day was pure joy; every child in the year group (Year 8) was engaged and enthralled. The story came to life, their voices were cajoled to capture the drama through their singing. They’re experienced the nature of staging a scene, and how to bring the dots from the page to life. Every child in the year group experienced the opera from the inside; they knew and felt the story. All in one day. I wanted every year group to an opera, once a year. This felt the most appropriate way to learn about the art form.

Interestingly opera isn’t represented significantly in the music curriculum; there are the odd set work in the examinations. You’d have thought it would feature much more, considering our history of community opera not only with Britten but others. And the work of opera in prisons.

Opera is accused of elitism, a label that has been challenged. And there is work to do to diversifying and enable access for a greater range of singers. But amidst all of this, I thought there was immense good in the quality of the educational projects I’ve experienced, and the range of opportunities for children and young people to experience the art form on stage and in their schools, and to experience the creation of opera through active engagement.

I’m wondering what more we can do to weave this significant artistic practice into our schools; not only to build those potential audiences of the future but to demonstrate that this art form has something to offer. And the practice of opera-writing continues to evolve and there are stereotypes we can challenge in the classroom.

The news of last week regarding ENO has strengthened my resolve to write an opera, experience more opera and weave more opera into the classroom. Ideally I’d like to see opera become a valued part of our curriculums, but I recognise we’ll need the expertise, experience and imaginations of opera companies to help us achieve that. And I hope the ENO will continue to one such company that contributes to music education.

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