In 2019 we worked with 266 pupils aged 5–11 from both our partner primary schools (Millbrook Combined School; Stokenchurch Primary; Chalgrove Community Primary; Ibstone CE School; Frieth CE School and Lane End Primary School) plus two new schools (Watlington Primary and Longwick CE Combined School). Using our long-established ‘Create an Opera’ format, each of the schools received a full day in-school workshop with Hazel Gould (director), John Barber (music director and composer), Charmian Bedford (soprano) & Victoria Simmonds (mezzo soprano). They studied the musical and dramatic themes of Fantasio, learned some of the repertoire, and composed their own lyrics and songs. They also had the opportunity to listen to and perform with a professional opera singer, who sang some of the arias from the focus opera. The project culminated in sharing performances entitled The Big Sing, a mini opera production combining all the material covered during the workshops, for audiences of parents, teachers and other schoolchildren.
In 2019 we worked with 292 secondary school pupils (up from 166 in 2018), by far our biggest number to date. Our long-term partner schools, Cressex (focusing on dance and drama) and The Misbourne (focusing on instrumental music) each undertook a two-day in-school residency. Five other schools (Dr Challoner’s High School; Alfriston School; Waddesdon CE School; St Michael's Catholic School and The Mandeville School) each undertook an intensive one-day project. The ‘Create an Opera’ format was again used, and each school presented their mini-opera performance to an audience of parents, teachers and other schoolchildren.
The exciting multidisciplinary residency at Cressex Community School explored singing, acting, composition and dance. The Director and Music Director team of Karen Gillingham and Omar Shahryar worked with students, performing and developing material from Fantasio, while choreographer Natasha Khamjani worked with an enthusiastic dance group to bring the opera’s music and themes to life through movement. The residency culminated in two sharing performances.
This year’s residency at The Misbourne School continued the concept of working with a dedicated group of instrumentalists, which we had initiated in 2017 and 2018, and the group was led by instrumentalist Jason Rowland. This year’s project was led by director Freya Wynn-Jones and composer Michael Betteridge. Students undertook warm up games and drama exercises before exploring the musical and dramatic themes of Fantasio. They then split into separate vocal and instrumental groups to develop their own ideas of singing, composition, acting and instrumental work in response to the themes. All seven mini-projects signposted students towards our Youth Opera Company, and a group of over 100 students from Cressex Community School and The Misbourne School came to the OperaFirst performance of Fantasio at Wormsley on 10 July 2019.
The OperaFirst project culminated in an exhilarating evening at Wormsley on 10 July 2019, in which the Alvarez Young Artists (chorus and understudies) had the opportunity to perform Fantasio with a full orchestra to a warm and enthusiastic audience of primary and secondary school students, all of whom had studied the opera previously. The performance started with a 30-minute introduction to the world of opera, presented by Karen Gillingham.
After some fun audience warmups and interaction, she introduced some of the creative and backstage teams, who gave fascinating insights into what happens behind the scenes at Garsington. Stage manager Paul Carr demonstrated how the sets move and brought one young audience member onstage to experience what being a stage manager is like. Conductor Harry Sever gave a short masterclass on how to conduct an orchestra, and mezzo soprano Bianca Andrew (in the title role) took part in a Q & A session in which she talked about being an opera singer and how to prepare for a demanding role. The wardrobe team even brought an Alvarez Young Artist onstage to demonstrate a quick change in real time. During the shortened interval the young audience ate their packed dinners in the tents and soaked up the atmosphere at Wormsley. Many of the singers commented afterwards that they had never heard such deafening applause at the end!