Monday 29 June 2020

From Couch to Chorus: Opera North's education team launches a new project aimed at getting us all singing in our living rooms

Opera North SingON at Alwoodley (Photo Justin Slee)
Opera North SingON at Alwoodley (Photo Justin Slee)
For anyone who simply catches a performance by Opera North, in Leeds or on tour, it can be easy to miss the fact that the company's extends well beyond opera to busy education and outreach departments with projects with school children, adults and refugees. This Summer the company is launching a new virtual choir, From Couch to Chorus, aimed at getting people singing. One of the choral directors involved is Jennifer Sterling who explained to me more about the project.

Jennifer works in the education department on projects such as In Harmony Opera North (part of a national programme that aims to inspire and transform the lives of children in deprived communities) where school children are taught instruments and sing in choirs, or Sing ON, the company's weekly music and singing activity for over 55s.

But moving from these active participation events to the necessity of using Zoom in lockdown can surely be tricky when working with amateurs? Jennifer explained that they have already been working on-line with these existing groups. This was very much trial and error, but they have received some good feedback, such as one singer who commented that they didn't expect to enjoy singing in front of a computer so much!

Jennifer points out that there is a lot you can do on-line, you can talk about details, though you have to guess the areas that might go wrong, so they can be looked at in greater depth. One thing they have learned is that not having too many parts in a rehearsal helps. So for From Couch to Chorus there will be four weeks of sectional rehearsals (separating soprano, alto, tenor and bass), before everyone comes together.

Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - the chorus of Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
Cole Porter: Kiss me Kate - the chorus of Opera North (Photo: Tristram Kenton)
For From Couch to Chorus, the singers will be learning the opening chorus from Smetana's The Bartered Bride, the chorus of the Hebrew slaves from Verdi's Nabucco and the Habanera from Bizet's Carmen. At the end there will be an ensemble sing through with a recording made by the chorus of Opera North.

The members of the SingON choirs have found their on-line sessions to be quite freeing in some ways. But one area that will be a challenge for some in From Couch to Chorus is being on your own in front of a computer, you have to learn how to hold your part without the support of the rest of your voice part. Jennifer hopes that the project will enable singers to gain confidence and perhaps decide to join a choir once things return to normal.

A huge variety of people could participate, and it will be important to give singers a variety of things to think about, so some will be concentrate on simply learning the notes whilst other more experienced singers will be encouraged to think about how they sing.

When things return to normal there will be the challenge of incorporating elements of what the team has learned from the on-line sessions into regular rehearsals. For Opera North's existing projects, there could well be an interim period when a mixture of live rehearsals and on-line sessions is used. For any new projects, the team will have to think about how many more people can be reached by technology. Within a day or so of the launch of From Couch to Chorus over 300 singers had signed up. Running a live project with such numbers could be tricky, so Jennifer could imagine a project which moved from on-line sessions to a final physical get together.

The team's school projects have also been using on-line sessions. However, with the school children, rehearsing together in an important factor in building confidence and team work, but teaching tends to be in groups. Working on-line has meant an emphasis on learning musicianship, a process which has been positive, but had its frustrations too. Jennifer points out that when you sing in a choir, you developed a personal connection with everyone even though you might not know them individually. And this can be important in projects like In Harmony Opera North, and singing on-line just does not give you this.

From Couch to Chorus runs from 20 July to 12 August 2020, full details from the Opera North website.

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