On Thursday 9th March I took ten Music GCSE student to see their first opera at Hackney Empire. To say these students are from a deprived social and educational context is an understatement – they live in a working-class area of London, and the demographic of their school shows that students available for Free School Meals, Pupil Premium is well above the national average (in fact 3-4 times the national average), whilst the number of students with English as a Foreign Language, Special Educational Needs and Disabilities is at a similar rate. I’ve had the absolute pleasure this year of leading their GCSE studies, and have found them to be absurdly talented in music. They are no less capable than students who will have many more opportunities than they have – one of the Y11s, for instance, has secured a scholarship to the Royal College of Music Saturday school.
I wanted to share my love of Opera with these students because I feel that Opera at its best stretches the musical and theatrical art forms to its limits. I wanted them to experience something that would be unlike anything they’d seen, and find out what their reaction was as much as anything else. From the outset I felt that this would be make or break. If their first experience was a bad one they wouldn’t come back a second time. I felt that top quality performance had to be combined with accessible prices and venue, and for that the English Touring Opera was the obvious choice. It also had to be something that could in some way give a reasonably meaningful flavour of this vast and diverse genre.
The production for ETO’s Tosca was relatively simple (this is to be expected of a touring company for practical reasons). The stage was divided into levels which was sometimes effective, and at other times distracting. The smaller stage size (compared with other opera venues) did sometimes feel inhibiting in terms of action. There was less opportunity for movement and use of space during the deliver of arias, resulting in a somewhat more ‘recital’-esque feel, with less sense of integration between the theatrical/acting component of the opera and its musical presentation.
The singing was utterly top class, especially from Tosca herself. As there is a split cast and I didn’t manage to get my hands on a programme that evening I can’t be entirely sure, but I think we had the pleasure of Laura Mitchell. Her expression and the scope of her sound were exquisite. The set really came into its own for Tosca’s final fall, with the extreme height created producing an even more compelling ending than usual, although it wasn’t apparent why the guards would stand at the foot of a ladder and make no attempt to prevent her jump for a good number of minutes before it actually occurred.
The relationship between Tosca and Cavaradossi was youthful, playful and exciting. It was very accessible to the young audience I brought with me, being very much alive and believable rather than formal or scripted as can sometimes be the case in Opera. Scarpia’s coldness made good sense of his chilling behaviour, and at times his gestures were shockingly, blackly humourous.
For people who enjoy opera this is a production well worth going to. Moreover, for those who are new to Opera it is also an excellent introduction.
Going to the Opera with these students and seeing it through their eyes opened mine to what Opera can be like in an entirely new way. I had to make an number of decisions about how to prepare them and how much. I decided, against much popular advice, to prepare them minimally. I wanted the music and the genre to speak for itself, and I was conscious not to over-hype the experience or make the students feel in any way that they couldn’t be totally honest with me about how they found it, especially if they genuinely didn’t enjoy it.
Since the story of Tosca is such a rollercoaster I told the students how it goes up to the arrest only, and left the ending for them to discover as Puccini intended it. For other operas I probably would have given them the whole story, but it was a great feeling to watch 16-year-old boys jump out of their seats in horror when La Tosca grabbed the knife in the middle of Act II!
The students did all find Act I very confusing and a little boring, which is not surprising as Tosca Act I is largely ‘scene-setting’. I had to explain it to them a little more in the interval, but this shows how the sometimes overly-complicated plots and backstories of opera can be a genuine barrier. Act II re-engaged the students through its fast pace and action, and by Act III they were visibly overwhelmed by the music.
I sensed a mixed response at the end. Some students were uncharacteristically quiet and reflective. Others were excited simply by looking into the pit and seeing Double Basses and Tubular Bells for the first time, whilst a number of students commented with awe on how “loud” the singing and orchestra were. They couldn’t believe it had been achieved without microphones. After this my colleagues reported that they students were buzzing around school for a good week afterwards, telling their friends about the Opera. On the night a few of the students asked me how and where they could find cheap opera tickets, and if they were allowed to go on their own!
Much of the students’ ability to access and engage with this production was a direct result of the involvement of the English Touring Opera Education department. ETO puts on a large number of free pre-show talks and runs schemes for local singers, schools and children to get involved with opera as they move across the country. I cheekily contacted Education and Community Coordinator, Daniel Coelho, who went above and beyond for our students, even arranging for two members of the cast to speak to them ahead of their experience. Although unfortunately due to a traffic incident we were unable to attend this company’s dedication to opening the opera experience to all is at a level unrivalled by any scheme I have seen, not least because it reaches across the nation rather than being anchored to a specific opera house or theatre. The students arrived in time for the public pre-show talk and I am grateful to Director Blanche McIntyre for avoiding spoilers throughout! I asked her to advise our students how to cope if they were finding the opera difficult. Her response was kind and authentic. She reflected that people often make opera out to be more difficult than it actually is, and emphasised the importance of the story and emotions. Overall, she encouraged them to sit back and listen to the music, especially if everything else became ‘too much’.
I am thoroughly grateful to English Touring Opera for their commitment to high quality opera, low prices and their genuine ethos of outreach and education. Other companies, larger and wealthier and better recognised, could learn a great deal from them.