Saturday, 1 October 2016

Vibrant young theatre: Opera for All's Eugene Onegin project with school children in Grimsby

Opera for All's Eugene Onegin project in Grimsby Central Hall
Opera for All's Eugene Onegin project in Grimsby Central Hall
60 children from NE Lincolnshire singing and dancing, performing their own interpretation of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, mixing the opera with their own take on the plot and some distinctive twists, alongside two professional singers. This was the latest of Opera for All's projects, bringing opera and a sense of cultural community to coastal areas.

Opera for All is a collaboration between Garsington Opera, Coastal Communities Alliance and Magna Vitae which aims to bring opera and a sense of cultural engagement to communities where cultural provision is relatively limited. (You can read more about their work in my interview with Hannah Elder from Opera for All). One of their projects involved taking a film of this year's production of Eugene Onegin to Grimsby, NE Lincs, year two of a three year project supported by Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund, following a similar project in the town last year. A free screening of the film was given at Grimsby Central Hall, and around this a series of workshops were held with local school children culminating in performances. I went along to see the results.

Returning to Grimsby Central Hall was something of a trip in a time machine for me, as I was brought up in the area and played a number of concerts there with the Grimsby, Cleethorpes and District Youth Orchestra. Whilst superficially little had changed, Freeman Street Market was still in the next block, and the Dock Tower still rose proudly over the docks, in fact there are large differences between then and now. The fish docks are no longer the centre of commercial activity in the town, and the level of unemployment is high.
The NE Lincs area is regarded as culturally deprived; in 2014 I attended a similar project in Grimsby (see my article) when Orchestras Live brought its First Time Live Youth project with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Opera for All project involved today's school children from Havelock, St James's and Ormiston Maritime schools (all secondary schools) and two primary schools, William Barcroft and Willows. The secondary school children had two days of workshops with the team from Opera for All, to create their own response to Eugene Onegin, whilst the primary school children had one day of workshops. The children had learned music from the opera, but also written their own songs (words and music) in response to some of the situations and issues in the opera, including providing two alternative endings to the duel scene! This creation of their own material, articulating their response to the story, was intended to give the children a real sense of ownership of the project.

The Opera for All team had included the composer Richard Taylor (who provided the piano accompaniment and facilitated the creation of the new songs), joined by two professional singers Belinda Evans and Robert Gildon. These latter two sang with the children and had participated in the workshops, including singing in the schools' halls. Something which evidently won over a lot of the young people who were dubious about opera ('people screeching' and 'singing high'). Having artists of the calibre of singers from Garsington Opera performing in the schools also created a real buzz.

The young people gave two performances of their new piece, the first at lunchtime for an audience of 450 primary school children, and the second in the evening, just before the screen of the film, to an audience comprising film screening attendees along with proud Mums and Dads. This resulted in quite a varied mix for the evening audience, both in terms of exposure to opera (or lack thereof) and in terms of cultural backgrounds.

Whilst the project introduced the young people to opera, it did far more than that. The workshops involved collaborations across different years within the school from the oldest to the youngest students, as well as collaborations with neighbouring schools. Also, working towards the performances pushed the children out of their comfort zones within a controlled environment, something highlighted by the head teacher from St James's School in his speech of thanks at the end. The different schools had worked on different aspects of the opera, choosing the themes themselves, and it was their own idea not to present a series of disparate scenes, but to create a potted version of the opera.

The lunch time performance was intended as an introduction to the opera for the primary school children so that different young performers came forward to narrate bits of the plot and we saw excerpts from the film, in all around 75 minutes. The audience was warmed up first, with some physical exercise which involved clapping and interacting with their neighbours, and then they were taught one of the songs written by the primary school children involved in the project. Half-way through there was a pause to teach the audience the second song. The young people responded lustily both to the warm-up and to the singing. Words were projected onto a screen throughout for everything that was being and all the singing was in English; both Rob Gildon and Belinda Evans had excellent diction in their solo moments.

There were around 60 on stage in all, all in a very of inventive costumes. One group had written a counterpoint to the song of reapers, from Act One of the opera, offering advice to the young Tatyana (played by Lucy) who was on stage throughout. We heard Belinda Evans sing the letter scene, expanded to include choral moments at the end. And the dance at the Madame Larina's was an inventive mix of Tchaikovsky and new elements, the new words relating very much to the world of Facebook and Snapchat. There were number of young Onegins and Lenskys during the performance, and rather impressively Robert Gildon sang both Onegin's response to Tatyana's letter, and Lensky's aria which was embedded in the scene giving alternative endings to the duel (the sisters intervene and get shot; Onegin shoots himself after killing Lensky). The young audience seemed entranced by the whole thing, seeing their peers and other students performing and clearly relating to the story of the opera.

In the evening, the primary school performers were not present and the students from the secondary schools created their piece, which told the story from the opening to the alternative duel scenes, as a continuous narrative. But beforehand, we the audience were warmed up with the same physical routine as at lunch time, and we were taught the first song. I was quite surprised at how much enthusiasm the adults showed.

The performances were an important showcase for the schools, giving the performers the opportunity for a public performance, and it helps encourage the young primary school audience to see their older peers performing. The lunch time format was a development from last year, when a similar workshopped performance was followed by a full screening of the opera (Cosi fan tutte) which in retrospect was felt to be too much for the young audience.

The young performers gave and active and vibrant performance, involving costumes, dancing, actions and singing. A number had small solo roles, singing and speaking, and all were clearly learning to be at home on stage, and finding out what can be achieved by musical collaboration. I look forward to next year's project.

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