January 2009 Prompt magazine

THE scene shouldn't look out of the ordinary. We're in the main rehearsal room of Scottish Opera, a gymnasium-sized space with sound-proofing panels lining the walls, where a dozen or so singers are trying on costumes. They're squeezing into corsets and parading around in flamboyant dresses. One tenor poses for a photograph wearing a horse's head.

It could be just another costume fitting for the chorus of Scotland's biggest performing arts organisation, but there's a difference. Check out the age of the singers. None is over 18 and most are still at school. They're here this evening as part of the inaugural Connect programme, a series of workshops and introductory classes designed by the Glasgow-based company to give promising vocalists a taste of the professional world of opera.

If we were talking about straight theatre, this would be unremarkable. Teenagers have all the chances they need to act in school plays, join a youth drama group and study the subject in class. But opera, with its big sets, big choirs and big orchestras, is an all-or-nothing business that means any student with an interest in the form almost always has to make do with second best. They might learn an instrument, sign up for singing lessons or get a bit of acting experience, but the chance to fuse the various skills in an operatic whole is rare.

The Connect programme offers just such a chance to 20 teenagers from the central belt of Scotland. Spread across seven months (any longer and it'd clash with exams), it consists of nine evening workshops, four in-depth Sunday sessions and several trips to see Scottish Opera in action. What makes it stand out in terms of opportunity is the involvement of the full range of the company's staff. This is no jumped-up babysitting service to keep teenagers of the streets, but a high-minded mission to give the students an in-depth understanding of the operatic form, both aesthetic and practical.

Hence this evening's dressing-up box. Company repetiteur Ian Ryan has been putting the students through their paces with Aaron Copland's "Stomp Your Foot", a square dance from the 1954 opera The Tender Land, a task they have tackled with an authority beyond their years. Now it's the turn of Mandy Bryan, the ladies' cutter, to introduce them to the wardrobe and the fine art of fitting. "I get the chance to let them know how to behave in a fitting," she whispers to me before dragging in the costume rails. "It's really good because nobody teaches them things like that."

Nor do they teach them about the hazards of an over-tight corset. A look of alarm crosses their faces as Bryan talks about fainting sopranos in the wardrobe and the problems of singers putting on weight in the months between fitting and first night. "We do some very complicated dresses," she says. "Not your Marks and Spencer jerseys."

As they try on their costumes, Ian Ryan leans on the grand piano and surveys the scene. As well as introducing a new score, he has just given them an off-the-cuff translation of the libretto and a brief lecture on Verdi and the unification of Italy. He is delighted to be working with such a receptive audience. "They are very quick to learn and enthusiastic," he says. "I've been very impressed. I tend to work on the main-house productions, so it's nice to have this opportunity. You do get a different energy, a different way of thinking from them."

One of the distinguishing qualities of Connect in this era of outreach, accessibility and other bureaucratic buzz words is that it is unashamedly elitist. Scottish Opera has no shortage of schemes to bring opera to the people, whether it's the Sing Up Saturdays for 3–10 year olds, the programme of primary school performances that reaches 15,500 pupils a year or the frequent Essential Scottish Opera community tours. But the idea of Connect is not merely to spread the good word of opera, it is also to catch and cultivate the talented stars of tomorrow while they’re still young.

"It's the one programme where we auditioned," says Jane Davidson, head of education. "We were staggered at the quality. We were pretty exclusive and asked for students who were interested in opera and who could sing. We had almost 50 people auditioning, which was pretty good, and the 16 girls and four boys we got were just amazing. I freely accept that these are not teenagers who are struggling with life. We got some help from the Youth Music Initiative which runs a huge programme. The vast majority of their funds, quite rightly, go directly to local authorities to get ordinary kids involved with music making. But I was really appreciative that they said, 'Yes, but we also need programmes of excellence.' We need to cater to the best, brightest kids. They've got to have a share.

"We want them to be interested in that type of singing. If somebody pitched up a sang a song out of a Disney show, that's all great, it has its place, but our place is opera. That's what we make and it's important that we have a strong artistic identity."

The participants themselves seem delighted by this approach. Carla Chiappa, 17, from Dunfermline in Fife and a pupil at Dollar Academy, is one of several singers planning to study music at university and is thrilled to be in a group of like-minded peers. "When we're learning a piece that no one knows, we pick it up so quickly," she says, still dressed in her corset. "Because everyone has auditioned, everyone is good. It's so different from home with the school choir where it'd take us ages to learn a piece. That's what I like about it; we get stuck in and straight onto polishing things up. And it's a good opportunity to get to know people that are involved with music as much as me."

Her school friends accept her love of opera, which began as a result of singing lessons, and she, in turn, enjoys a wide range of music from electro beats to classical. Working with this group, however, is allowing her to develop her interest in opera so much further than she could at home. "It's so good to find people who specialise in opera," she says. "At school, people will like coming to choir, but you never meet people who would go this far and do an audition to be part of just opera. I have to travel to Glasgow, but it's well worth it. It is crammed into a short time, but you'd never get to do this amount of things in years to come. I wouldn't miss it."

Davidson is convinced this is the way forward both for the organisation and the artform. If Scottish Opera is to continue with schemes such as Five: 15, in which the company commissions fives pairs of composers and librettists to produce a 15-minute opera each, then it needs to be confident a new generation is coming through eager to engage with the form.

"Connect is part of a strand that I'm calling investment programmes," she says, highlighting one of the company's continuing professional development programmes called Hitting the High Notes aimed at getting teachers and student teachers to use opera as a tool for learning. "We're building our own followers. There is no programme like Connect in Scotland; nowhere do people aged 14–18 get the chance to explore opera. There is the opera school at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, but that is for people of 23 and 24 with a music degree under their belts. Even undergraduates don't learn a huge amount about opera, its history and what it could be. I really wanted to create something that wasn't a music-theatre group, wasn't about putting on Oliver! but that was unashamedly about opera.

"With dance and theatre there is an established system where you can go from being a child performer to a professional step by step. But the opera world in Scotland is more or less us. We don't have our own patch of ground with the fertile green shoots growing up. We've got to make that ourselves. It's a harder mountain to climb, but if it's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Making opera accessible has an incredibly important place in our education strategy, but we also need to take the reins and nurture young people."

Back in the rehearsal room, Ian Ryan is in full support. "Most of them have singing teachers and some of them are interested in taking the singing further or considering music college," he says. "At their age, it helps to get a bit of information, advice and experience, to find out how things work and to have some older, wiser heads to help them. A lot of them have experience singing, but not of the whole process of putting the drama together and being on stage."

This is an important point. Even with a firm grounding in music, the students have not necessarily had a chance to exercise their movement and acting muscles. To do so can come as a shock, which is why the workshops have given them such a boost in confidence. "After the second Sunday session the director said she felt they were on the edge of their comfort zone in what they were being asked to do, but that they were creeping out of their shells," says Davidson. "Vocally they have always impressed, but because they are mainly singers they are slightly less comfortable with acting and improvising."

The philosophy of Connect is to provide a broad experience of the professional world of opera, whether it's a session with the wardrobe staff or a meeting with the singers. Davidson recognises that at such a young age, the students could follow any number of career paths, so it's important they see the full range of skills that contribute to such a complex artform.

"At least some of these kids will make the performing arts their career," she says. "They could be the makers as well as the people singing and dancing on the stage. That's why the programme is designed so they know that this place is jam-packed with people who never set foot upon a stage as a performer, but without whom this large arts organisation couldn't exist. They've met production management, the artist manager and company manager, who've talked about their role is getting the thing from the score onto the stage. They're also going to meet the young composer Gareth Williams – it's important that they see people at varying stages of their careers, so they can see the steps from school to university to the profession."

Her plan for the autumn of 2009 is to induct another 20 pupils into the Connect programme, while the existing 20 graduate to a laboratory in which they get involved with "making new opera for the 21st century" alongside the cream of today's librettists and composers. "I felt they couldn't get involved in creating new work until they had a handle on where it's been and how it's developed," says Davidson, whose own lessons have included a popular history of the castrati.

Topics studied during the more in-depth Sunday sessions have included the work of early composers and the development of female characters for the stage by Rossini and Mozart. The students' enthusiasm, not to mention their talent as singers, opens up great possibilities for the future. "There are so many opportunities once we get these guys on the road," she Davidson, hoping to forge partnerships with other performing arts organisations. "So far they've just been impressing everybody and they're gagging to perform. I'm really enjoying having them about the place. Who knows where it will be in five years time?"

© Mark Fisher 2009

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