I’ve recently been spending time with opera singers – not as a punter in some fancy opera house, but as external evaluator for the Learning and Participation programme of Garsington Opera. Garsington does indeed have a ‘house’, a light-filled structure set in the gentle hills of the Wormsley estate in Buckinghamshire. And the people who attend operas on this main stage do dress up and picnic on the lawns; the audio is of clinking champagne glasses and refined chit-chat – ‘country-house opera’ in every sense.
But now imagine a day when the sounds echoing across those same lawns are those of primary age children playing, chasing, cartwheeling, taking over the space in a way that children offered such green expanses just do. It’s the interval of the OperaFirst performance of Fantasio – a comic fairy-tale romp by the 19th century composer Jacques Offenbach. And at the final curtain call the cast are greeted with Glasto-style whooping from the audience of 600 school children with their teachers. Parents waiting outside on pick-up duty can scarcely believe that this deafeningly enthusiastic response is to an opera – an art-form considered by so many to be elite and exclusive.
Let’s reel back a bit – this OperaFirst performance was much more than some worthy ‘take children to culture’ exercise of the kind that most publicly-funded arts organisations are obliged to offer. (I’m not being critical here – an actual experience is better than none!) Instead it was the culmination of a serious bit of work by Garsington’s L&P department in local state primary, secondary and special schools: Fantasio was explored creatively in two intense days of workshops involving singing, stagecraft, composition and shared performance. As a former teacher observing these workshops, it’s clear that to me there’s a straight line leading from the skills of the creative teams working in classrooms to that rapture in the opera-house a few weeks later. It starts with Karen Gillingham, Garsington’s talented and charismatic creative director of L&P, who brings together a small and well-matched group of professionals for each school: a singer, a music director a stage director, and a vitally important L&P producer, who sorts out every practical detail from school liaison to sourcing a singer’s favourite lunchtime sandwich.
At Stokenchurch Primary School stage director Hazel Gould gets groups of Year 5 children to freeze- frame the emotional moments of the opera: ‘show me Princess Elsbeth upset at the death of her friend the jester, which happens on her wedding day to a man she’s being forced to marry by her father the king’ the creative and disciplined working situation has been so well set up by this time that the children speedily tackle this complex situation. At Milbrook Primary School, singer Charmian Bedford kneels on the floor and addresses one of the songs from the opera directly to the children sitting two metres away. It’s about that unwanted wedding day that she’s so dreading. One or two children giggle (as they put it, ‘singing really high, not like normal singing’) but most are open-mouthed, admiring, surprised. Music-director/composer John Barber helps children compose their own songs on this theme: ’we’re going to compose a song giving the princess some advice. Imagine you’re the princess’s maid and you know she’s making a big mistake agreeing to this wedding’. A boy pipes up ‘My lady, I know that you want to keep the peace, but this prince might not be what you think he is’. This is how children (or anyone) can learn about the key elements of opera which are, very simply, story-telling through acting and singing. The OperaFirst does educate children about opera, of course, but, as I witnessed it, it also demonstrates more generally the power of an arts-rich curriculum in primary schools. The arts reach us because they address us emotionally. There’s nothing more motivating than that and it’s the reason why I, having worked both in schools and in the cultural sector wanted to, no, needed to write The Arts in Primary Education. By showcasing projects such as OperaFirst and many other exemplary arts-based curricula in schools across the country I’m hoping that schools leaders who often for understandable reasons have left the arts as box-ticking, fringe activities, will find reasons to embrace them wholeheartedly.
Ghislaine Kenyon worked formerly as Deputy Head of Education at the National Gallery and then Head of Learning at Somerset House. She has curated several exhibitions, including Tell Me a Picture in 2000 with Quentin Blake. Her latest book The Arts in Primary Education is out now!