I have always loved all kinds of music; growing up I listened to everyone from the Beatles to Helen Reddy to Metallica. But as a child I was rarely exposed to classical music. In fact my main access to classical music was through adverts. I can still remember ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (1937) blasting out over a well-known aftershave advert.
Opera and classical music just weren’t genres that I experienced. Opera was something that happened only in big, impressive opera houses, invariably in London, and undoubtedly very expensive. Plus, in my school at least, admitting to liking something as uncool as opera would have been social suicide.
I wonder how things might have been different if the many outreach and education programmes that exist now were around back then. The idea that opera is only meant for a certain ‘type’ of person, and that if you’re not already in the know then you’re not of that type, is easily perpetuated and will never go away if it’s not challenged.
Traditionally, opera houses haven’t been great at dispelling that myth. But falling ticket sales and a need to stay relevant – as well as a genuine desire to bring opera to more people – have changed that. Opera companies and houses have realised that they can’t just wait for people to come to them and instead are taking opera to the people.
Opera companies and houses are reaching out into local communities with a whole range of educational projects. Touring companies are particularly well placed for this – often visiting areas and venues that otherwise don’t often experience opera.
The Glyndebourne Tour, which this year includes productions of Puccini’s La bohème (The Bohemians, 1896) and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, will visit venues in Canterbury, Milton Keynes, Norwich and Liverpool. In addition to the concerts, it will feature residencies at each of the tour locations.
Glyndebourne is present at these places throughout the year, making opera and music with and for a diverse range of local people. The residencies culminate in a host of activities that take place alongside the mainstage tour productions as part of the opera house’s Resound programme.
“Our tour residencies aim to develop a deep connection with the communities we visit, and to invite a broad audience to access and experience our world-class opera productions,” explains Glyndebourne artistic director Stephen Langridge.
“We’re also reaching out into areas beyond the theatre through specially created performances, and participation projects developed in collaboration with our partners. These creative residencies are year round, culminating in the arrival of the full touring company in the autumn, creating a real festival atmosphere by bringing together people from all walks of life through music, theatre and song.”
Projects include Good Company, a musical programme for people living with dementia in care homes and communities, Sing with the Glyndebourne Chorus, in which the chorus sings with young people through local schools’ singing networks, and Pit Perfect, a development scheme for young professional instrumentalists.
English Touring Opera (ETO) describes itself as “committed to enhancing music education right across the country”. The company tours venues in England, and works regularly with schools and groups to create new operas from scratch.
ETO provides a team consisting of a composer, writer/director, designer, professional opera singer and a few student players to support the project. Participants get involved in song-writing, creating the narrative and the words, and performing. Others might help with the design or stage management, or by filming the production.
Keep it local
Many companies work within their local communities to bring opera to the people. Opera North works proactively to strengthen ties with schools and communities in its hometown of Leeds.
In Harmony Opera North is a residency programme that takes place in six schools in the city. It aims to offer an inclusive programme of music education and performance opportunities to encourage young people from all backgrounds to engage with the arts.
The company also runs a Community Partnerships project, aimed at opening up opera to people who may have barriers which would usually prevent them from engaging with the artform. Taster performances take Opera North’s work to people who wouldn’t usually experience it.
Huazhu Liu, a community project worker at Health For All, Leeds, commented: “As a Chinese community group, many of us have never been to Opera North before. When we were invited to watch the Introduction to Alcina show, we thought it could be challenging to understand the performance because of the language barriers.
“But we had a great time in the end. We all enjoyed the performance and had a lot of laughter and interactions with the actors. We are looking forward to our next trip already.”
West London-based Opera Holland Park (OHP) has a long tradition of engaging with communities that, for whatever reason, are excluded from opera. This led former director Michael Volpe to introduce eight inner-city London teenagers to opera for the first time. The 2018 documentary Hip Hop to Opera tells the story of what happened. It’s available to watch on Opera Holland Park’s YouTube channel.
OHP’s Inspire programme was set up in 2010, “in recognition of our social responsibility to our community,” the company says. The aim is to create accessible routes into opera for those who are new to the artform or who might not have been for a while.
The programme includes a number of different projects. OperaUNITY, for example, is a series of family workshops taking place online and at the Opera Holland Park Theatre. Each session blends music, movement, drama and storytelling, bringing opera to life with puppets, toys, live performances and singalong action.
Out of the Park Opera recognises that many people aren’t able to access an arts venue. It takes concerts and shortened versions of OHP’s summer season productions to care homes, hospitals, community centres, churches and other venues.
Projects for children include Schools Matinees, in which school groups from the local community can explore opera through workshops and matinee performances of OHP’s summer productions, and Learning Disability Ambassadors, in collaboration with Kensington & Chelsea Learning Disability Service. This is a series of in-school workshops to explore, break the boundaries and overcome the taboo surrounding learning disabilities.
There are also schemes aimed at refugees, as well as those living with dementia and their carers.
The national companies for each of the UK’s four nations also have their own outreach programmes. Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera (WNO) both run community singing and youth opera projects. The former has a community choir that meets on Wednesday evenings in central Glasgow, while Scottish Opera Young Company offers young singers and stage managers an introduction to the world of opera.
WNO’s Community Choruses are made up of amateur singers of all ages and backgrounds. There are two programmes, at Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and Venue Cymru in Llandudno. WNO Youth Opera offers participants the opportunity to develop their vocal ability and dramatic and performance skills. Groups are based in South Wales, North Wales and Birmingham, with members aged 8-18 years old.
Northern Ireland Opera (NIO) set up its Associate Artists programme in 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic as a way to safely deliver music events to communities across Northern Ireland. It was so successful that it is now a permanent part of the company.
This year NIO is working with writer Finn Kennedy and composer Neil Martin and a group of young activists to create a brand new opera. It will highlight the issues facing these young people who are all experiencing housing stress or homelessness. It will be performed at venues across the country.
English National Opera (ENO) works with Music Hubs and local councils to identify schools across London that have less opportunity to access the arts or are most in need of support for creative subjects. The company works with students and teachers to develop creative skills.
Additionally, the ENO invites schools to the London Coliseum to experience its work at close hand, glimpse behind the scenes and meet professionals working in artistic and technical roles.
Royal Opera House Bridge works to connect children and young people with art and culture, particularly in communities where there is limited local provision or experience. The programme works with schools, arts organisations, museums, libraries, heritage sites and councils across Essex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire and north Kent. It provides training, workshops, learning resources, funding and networking opportunities to improve arts education in schools.
This is just a brief overview of the programmes that are aiming to take opera out into the community, making the artform more accessible. There are many more – and there may well be one near you if you ever fancied yourself as a singer or musician.
Royal Opera House Bridge is a community education outreach programme that connects children and young people with art and culture.