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OperaFirst: In conversation

Our Learning & Participation Coordinator, Barbara Cole-Swinard, sat down with Mrs Brand, Year 6 & music teacher from Stokenchurch Primary School, to chat about her experiences with ‘OperaFirst: Primary’ and how it’s benefitted the children who have taken part.

At Stokenchurch we’ve been doing OperaFirst for many years now,” Mrs Brand tells Barbara, “I think we’ve participated at least three or four times, but our Year Fives and Sixes have generally been involved in some way. The very first time we took part, I can actually remember having conversations with you and the Garsington Opera team just to find out what it was all about. I think the word OperaFirst says it all really. The fact it’s the first time that children are going to get an experience which they haven’t had before. So, I think that that’s quite clear in itself.”

Moving on to the in-school workshops, Mrs Brand enthusiastically says that they “have always been absolutely brilliant and that what’s fantastic is that some children who had preconceptions of what opera was beforehand, or their families had preconceptions, break those barriers down because they suddenly realise actually it’s fun!”

“Yeah, absolutely,” agrees Barbara. “It’s singing, it’s acting, and something everyone can be involved in.”

Then going along to the actual performances in the summer,” Mrs Brand continues, “the children have all been completely wowed by them. Absolutely wowed! Just by the environment, the setting, and seeing the opera live; they always love hearing the segments of what they have learned in school as part of an actual performance.”

Recently, the OperaFirst programme expanded its offerings, providing a workshop focused, hour-long performance for primary schools and a full-length performance, with a workshop at the interval for secondary schools. “It was absolutely brilliant, having Karen (Creative Director of Learning & Participation) and Aga (Workshop Leader and Composer) on stage leading the performance and workshop”, Mrs Brand says, thinking about our OperaFirst: Primary performance of The Barber of Seville last year. “It was a shorter, workshop-based version of the opera and it was during the day, which together I think made it better for primary school ages as well.”

Barbara points out that as Stokenchurch has been part of OperaFirst for so long, Wendy must have seen and experienced both the ‘old setup’ and our new, primary and secondary specific offerings. “That ‘old setup’ is now what we offer to secondary students; an in-school workshop and a full performance of the opera at Garsington Opera. So, you’ve experienced that but then have also experienced our new primary offering.”

“I think there’s a place for both”, Mrs Brand responds, telling us that “the children got so much out of seeing a whole opera, but I think the shorter, more interactive version is really engaging for primary students.” Even with the full performances previously offered to primary schools, Mrs Brand believes that the children “still totally appreciated the music. With Fantasio a few years ago, the children absolutely loved the fact there was so much going on on-stage; they loved the set and the humour of it all. When we did The Magic Flute as well, there was so much to look at and enjoy.”

However, Mrs Brand thinks that the new primary school offering, “probably gave the children more of an insight into what the actual opera was; having the conductor and members of the company talking about what they do whilst actually looking at and walking through the set was a lot more interactive. There has always been an element of that from the beginning but they really did enjoy the new format.”

“Of course, the other part of our OperaFirst programme is our in-school workshops that go before the performance at Garsington Opera”, Barbara says. “Could you tell us a bit about your experience, and how they’ve worked at your school? Especially having done a few now!”

Mrs Brand explains that “each time someone from Garsington Opera has sent us an email and said, “Would you like to sign up and put down dates?”, it’s been great having a variety of dates to choose from. I want everyone to have the experience, because if you ask them to opt-in often the children with parents who already have an inkling about opera will sign them up and others won’t necessarily. I think offering it to all of them just lets them experience it, regardless of other factors. They might not expect to love it, but they often unexpectedly find that they do.”

Moving on to the more practical matters of taking part, Mrs Brand tells us “the organisation leading up to the workshops is just really good. We always have detailed communications about timings, breaks, lunchtimes, parking, and what’s going to work, arranging the best set up to get the most out of the experience. It’s really useful to have all of that information because when the children come into the hall, they know what to expect, and I always make sure to give them a little bit of a preamble, just so that they know what’s going to happen a bit. The setup of the day is just great”

Mrs Brand points out that, importantly, “the children always love it and are really surprised at themselves, creating their own lyrics, creating their own parts of the music; they always love that and are utterly wowed by the quality of singing with the professionals who come in, and they are just blown away.”

“The singers’ voices really fill the rooms, don’t they?” Barbara chimes in.

“That’s true!”, agrees Mrs Brand. “I teach music through the school but there’s no comparison to having someone who’s trained in opera singing for many years doing it right in front of them. It’s very different to watching someone on a YouTube video or television, and it’s really good for them to experience.”

“I can imagine that there are young people”, Barbara says, “who just completely surprise you when they take part.”

“Yes, absolutely.” Mrs Brand remembers how “there have been a couple of children who were absolutely adamant they didn’t want to do it, and then got in there and were completely the star of the show. There are also children who sometimes find it hard to concentrate in other areas of the curriculum, and suddenly you find that this is their thing; which is absolutely lovely to watch. Also having a discussion about all the other different aspects of opera, with set, costume, sound, and everything else gives a lovely element and something for everyone to enjoy.”

“I’m curious,” Barbara asks, “as someone who clearly believes in OperaFirst, what would you say to a teacher who doesn’t think opera is for them or for their young people? How would you encourage them to consider and explore it?”

“That’s a great question. I would just say it is the most incredible opportunity to have these professionals, who are the absolute top of their game, coming into your school.” Mrs Brand points out that it’s clearly important regarding cultural capital and it’s also a fantastic way to expand the children’s knowledge and their understanding of music. This is the perfect way of exposing children to something that they may have not heard before.”

“I would say it is just a fabulous workshop to do.” Mrs Brand continues. “It’s amazing what the children get from it with the warmups, the composing, the performance, and inviting children from other year groups to come and watch at the end of the day to celebrate what they’ve done as well.” She’s goes on to say how, following the in-school workshops, she has always made a point to integrate follow up work into her teaching, leading on from what was covered in the workshops.

Mrs Brand goes on to suggest that if anyone was still not sure about getting their school to take part, “I’d probably say go and have a look back at the Monday Motivations that were on during the pandemic. I’d say have a little look back because we used those each week while that was going on, and it gives a nice flavour of what to expect. Just have a look and see what the team are like because they’re immense!” 

“Yeah, that’s such a good suggestion!” Barbara agrees, “GO Create, another of our digital resources, is also fantastic for use in schools and gives a good sense of whether OperaFirst might be for you.”

“They were very good, I would hugely promote it.”

“I’d be interested to get your opinion,” says Barbara, “on if you see it purely as a creative and cultural outlet and experience, or has whether it has an impact on the children’s other schoolwork at all. Would you say that there’s a benefit to young people taking part in OperaFirst?”

“I think we all know music is really underrated in its ability to improve mood”, Mrs Brand tells us and goes on to consider how “that feeling of wellbeing after being part of something like this does spread across to their other work. I think every time you sing together as a group you get a good reaction from it, it’s got to have a positive effect.”

“As a school, we always make sure we write some letters and do some related activities, and teaching in the days following the workshop,” she continues, “just to really celebrate and make the most of it. I think with the whole storytelling part of opera, there’s so many ways it can lead into other areas as well. So, it definitely has to benefit across the children’s schoolwork and other interests.”

Barbara starts to bring the conversation to a close, “my final question is: is the experience worth taking part in again? Which just feels silly to ask you considering how many times you’ve done it!”

“A hundred percent I would do it again!” Mrs Brand replies enthusiastically, “I think it’s a brilliant experience and we’re so so lucky to have it close to our school. When I was with fellow music teachers recently, they were asking me about Garsington Opera and OperaFirst and how they could get their schools involved. So, I think the Garsington word is really spreading which is wonderful.”

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