The Opera Centre is usually a reverent place. A place of culture, of classic music, of grand performers waltzing from studio to green room, gently sirening and sipping hot drinks to sooth their “gift.” But as I climb the stairs towards the Warwick studio, the harsh chatter of a mass of children meets my ears.
Today is the family and media performance of the Opera Australia schools tour of The Barber Of Seville, and a test audience has been brought in from local primary schools. Opera Australia has been performing to primary student since 1996, so they’re old hands at the game, but it is difficult at the best of times to create material that will hold the attention of 5 to 11 year olds.
Indeed, halfway through the performance one boy directly in my eye line is holding himself by the ear lobes and head banging to his own personal soundtrack. But even with this singular poor review, as a whole, the group are remarkably attentive.
The performance is true to the traditional kids entertainment style with large grand gestures, fun physical gags and audience participation in the form of the time honoured “it’s behind you!” There was a little confusion from the children at times as to when to be involved, but when Haotian Qi, who played Figaro, sang his call and response of “Figaro, Figaro Fiiigaaaaarooooo,” (to which the audience was to respond in kind) it wasn’t just the children that seemed to get carried away, as noted with a shake of the head by the music director who happened to be sitting next to me.
And to that end, the only issue I found in the performance was clarity. Opera is well known for its perfection of vocal sound, with vowel manipulation and dropping of consonants commonly recommended by musical directors, and although it was a lot more subtle in this performance, even I found myself wondering at times what was occurring in the story. It’s helpful then that in The Barber Of Seville, plot points are commonly repeated thricely in quick succession.
Primary School is the perfect time to introduce opera to children, as they have yet to cement the requirement for “coolness” in their music taste. Indeed when I was in that age group, one of my favourite CD’s was a compilation of Tchaikovsky, something that no doubt cemented in my mind an appreciation for orchestral music. Children of primary school age are open to new things, whatever they are, and as long as it holds their attention and brings a little excitement, they will grasp it with both excited hands.
Opera Australia predicts that it will play to approximately 60,000 students in NSW and Victoria over the coming year, hopefully seeding a diverse love of music in most, and in some, the aspirations to become the great musicians of the future. Either way, I think all of us applaud companies like this, helping to educate our next generation in a variety of artistic styles. A diverse upbringing is a rich upbringing.