I’m at Blackheath Halls for the last performance of Eugene Onegin. It’s the annual community opera there (last year they did Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love). It was favourably reviewed for The Stage by my colleague, Graham Rogers, last week.
My interest - as well as enjoying a rousing performance - is in the enormous education benefit which this project packs in. The backbone is six professional soloists but Olga is sung (and extraordinarily well acted) by Katie Slater, who is still a student at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance. Simon Marsh, David Williams-Matthews and Panos Ntourntoufis, who all have solo roles, are Trinity Laban vocal students too. Then there’s the opera’s traditional ballet “interlude” performed by the Laban Youth Dance Company.
There are also the local primary and special schools involved in the project: Brooklands Primary School, Charlton School, Greenvale School and John Bull Primary School. At Sunday afternoon’s performance I saw the children were from John Bull and Greenvale. They work on “stage” - actually the body of the large hall with audience seated around the edge and the orchestra at one end - with the Blackheath Halls Opera Chorus.
Rehearsals for this year’s opera began on Monday 23 May when all the children from the four schools met and found out about the story, staging and who does what in mounting a production. They also listened to some of the music. Each school hosted further rehearsals before two rehearsals and a dress rehearsal at the Halls.
In parallel with all this Trinity Laban - of which Blackheath Halls is an “integral part” and “benefits greatly from its close association” according to General Manager, Keith Murray - ran its “Raising the Roof” project. That involved Year 8 pupils composing works inspired by Eugene Onegin and a lot of art and other work which is displayed around the foyers and other areas at Blackheath Halls.
What an experience for those youngsters, some of whom have learning difficulties. They are working on-stage alongside talented professional singers and dozens of “ordinary” adults who are role modelling the notion that opera and theatre making are fun and worthwhile - for everyone. They are also learning their way, from the inside, round one of the (underrated?) masterpieces of the artistic repertoire that’s much less well known to the general public than the great works of, say, Mozart or Verdi. Yet, Tchaikovsky was such a dramatic melodist - and not just in the ballets.
The children are not required in Act 3. To see them sitting - the Year 5 children on the floor and the special needs teenagers on chairs - totally engrossed moves me deeply. These are 9 and 10 year olds and they’re having a life changing experience. Who says opera is “too difficult” or “irrelevant” if you attend an inner city primary school or if you have special educational needs? Don’t EVER patronise or underestimate children.