Cath Barton has been following Operasonic’s work in schools and community groups to uncover the legends of Newport.
It’s been just three years since Rhian Hutchings moved on from being Director of the Youth and Community Department of Welsh National Opera and set up Operasonic to provide more opportunities for young people to get involved in opera. In that short time her strong creative vision and networking ability have attracted a host of music and theatre professionals to join her in Operasonic’s projects. I was excited to hear about their Newport Legends opera earlier this year, which involves children in three primary schools in different parts of the city as well as community groups in Maindee. For each of the four there’s a director and composer working with the participants to bring stories from where they live together, set them to music and stage the legend that they create together. To frame and link the legends, composer Errollyn Wallen, herself no stranger to community-based opera projects, has written music for two professional opera singers, Adam Jondelius and Philippa Reeves, who are both also involved in one or more of the schools projects.
By the time I caught up with Newport Legends, work was well under way and indeed the children of St Michael’s Primary School had already completed preparations for their Legend of the Flood. I’ve been going along to some of the rehearsals as the work with the other three groups has developed over the past few months. Here’s a flavour.
Thursday 23rd March
I turn up at Clytha Primary School, close to Newport city centre, at the end of the school day as children are heading in all directions for various after-school activities. I meet up with Rhian Hutchings and the creative team for The Legend of Tom Prothero and we head for a crowded classroom where I squeeze into a small chair amongst the children. One of them tells me excitedly that she’s an understudy for a solo part. The group has been workshopping the piece with director Hannah Noone and composer Richard Barnard since the beginning of term so the work is well advanced.
Today baritone Adam Jondelius has come along to sing with the children for the first time – he’s playing the role of Tom Prothero – and some of them are clearly awed to see and hear him. They say that he’s “spectacular” and Richard comments on how much more confident their own singing sounds after they’ve heard Adam sing.
After the sing-through we all file down to the school hall so that Hannah can work with the children on staging. One of the youngsters plays the part of the Chartist leader John Frost and the legend tells the story of his conflict with the once poor, now wealthy Thomas Prothero. Divided into groups of rich and poor, the children warm to their roles as they walk through the piece. Costumes for the final performance will be special Operasonic T-shirts for all, but today Hannah is trying out some props, including high top hats, bonnets, cups and flowers fashioned from white card. One of the children says “I think they look beautiful”, though others are troubled by hats which are too big or too tight. That’s just one more thing for the team to sort out, but no-one seems fazed. As for me, I drive home exhausted by all that young energy fizzing around me.
Thursday 30th March
I’m back at Clytha Primary. Today the group is joined by double bass player Ashley John Long and pianist Helen Roberts. Richard tells the children that the ‘orchestral’ rehearsal they’re about to have is called a Sitzprobe in opera, and that he’ll be conducting a bit more for that.
In their excitement the children’s singing is getting shouty. Richard talks about the difference between singing loud like Adam and shouting. Adam says that his advice is to take a good breath and be prepared.
The children are given a chance to ask Adam and Ashley questions. One asks Adam how long he’s been learning singing; another says to Ashley, “How does it feel to say I play a giant violin?”
Chairs are set out in the hall because at the end of this afternoon’s rehearsal there’s a sharing of the work so far, with parents and other family members invited. As they embark on a final run-through before showtime, Hannah reminds the children that while it’s exciting and it’s right for everyone to be excited, there’s still work to do to make the performance fantastic.
The house is opened and there must be 45 people filing into the hall. The cast of The Legend of Tom Prothero freeze in character for the start of the show. It’s a world première and I’m as excited as everyone else as the first notes sound on the double bass.
Wednesday 5th April
Another week, another school, another legend. Today I’m at St Woolos Primary, on Newport’s Stow Hill, where Philippa Reeves is wearing a directing hat alongside composer Stacey Blythe. The pair both teach singing for drama students at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and tell me they have worked together for 20 years. They have an easy rapport with each other and the group of children gathered for what is just their second session making The Legend of Twm Barlwm.
Amy Morgan, Operasonic’s Producer for Newport Legends, collects questionnaires which the children are filling in about whether they’re been in opera or plays before, how they feel about speaking out and working in a group and their creative preferences – acting, writing and so on. At this stage levels of confidence vary but all the children get engaged as Philippa gets them running around in a ‘cat and mouse’ warm-up.
The story of Twm Barlwm is about what happens when a boy or a girl called Jacky disappears into the mountain, and it features a badger, a fox and a barn owl. Stacey and Philippa get the children thinking about how it feels to be a fox. Experimenting with ways of moving like a fox the children learn what staccato means. They also come up with words to describe Jacky’s feelings about being lost, and throw in some musical ideas too. As Stacey says to them at the end of their rehearsal, “You’ve given me ingredients for a cake – I’m going to mix them up.”
Wednesday 26th April
Over the Easter holidays Stacey and Philippa have used the material produced by the St Woolos children to sketch out a four act opera! Stacey tells the children that she has used the words they gave her last time and some extra ones to make fox’s song. That song learnt, they’re on to producing “a shopping list for ingredients to make badger cake”.
It’s a wonderfully inclusive process – these children really are legend makers and I see them growing in confidence in response to the attention and respect they are being given. The St Woolos group is a bit smaller than the one at Clytha Primary, and each boy and girl is going to have their own moment in the final performance, as fox, badger or someone else who speaks. The process is really demystifying opera for these young people, making it fun but teaching them a huge amount at the same time about how words, music and movement can come together in a magical amalgam.
Wednesday 7th June
Catching up with progress at St Woolos. There will be a sharing in school for parents at the end of the month, but I won’t see the full Twm Barlwm story until all the legends and legend makers are brought together for the full performance of Newport Legends at the beginning of July.
The children do a run-through of some of the choruses and there’s also going to be some individual work today, while as a group they are going to do something quite new to most of them – and to me! – stop motion animation. Rhys Webber and Josh Rousen from Newport-based Webber Design give a lesson (as they have already done in the other schools involved) on how this works, using toys and speech bubbles. The children quickly learn two things – it’s a simple process, but one that needs lots of patience. You have to take at least 24 individual frames to make just one second of film! I’m impressed with how patiently and productively Rhys and Josh work with the children. Before we know it the title sequence for their legend is made!
Saturday 17th June
I’m heading to Maindee Library in East Newport for the first rehearsal of a community choir which will be performing a new Maindee Legends mini-opera in just two weeks’ time! It’s the hottest day of the year so far in South Wales and it’s a relief to step into the relative cool of Maindee Library, where I join in the vocal warm-up led by Helen Woods, composer for one of the other legends and MD of the overall production. She gets us to wake up our heat-dulled bodies and brains by doing vocal exercises such as making the sound of a carrot! Then we’re into learning some music.
Director Polly Graham has been gathering the stories of people who use Community House in Maindee, which replaced an old chapel which had to be pulled down. It’s a place where people of all faiths and cultures are welcome and the Maindee Legends piece which Polly and composer Jack White have written as part of Newport Legends centres on the coming together of strangers. This is appropriate not just to the subject but also to the group who are meeting today for the first time to rehearse the piece.
I’m amazed how quickly the small group of singers gets to grips with Jack’s music. He’s written a beautiful melody, which helps, but the rhythms are not straightforward. No problem to these singers. Most of them do sing regularly, but in much larger choirs, the Newport Philharmonic and Cascapella. I chat to some of them in the tea break about what brought them along. One works in the library where we’re meeting and encouraged a friend to come too, another saw the notice on Facebook. One tells me she signed up when she first heard about the project and has been looking forward to it for months. They’re all really positive about trying something new.
With chairs moved aside, Polly uses exercises to help the singers find ways of moving from individual awareness to forming a group, weaving around and using each other as a sort of landscape. She passes on important tips, such as:
“We don’t ever have to look directly at the conductor – that’s the golden rule of opera.”
And experimenting with ways of individuals connecting she says:
“It’s always more exciting in theatre watching people try to do things, so the reach of hands is the excitement.”
Singing while moving about is new to some of the group, and Helen points out gently that while some people no doubt think they are singing, their mouths are not moving. It’s clear that people feel encouraged rather than criticised.
There is a tangible buzz of excitement in the room by the time the session ends, with at least one of the women talking about bringing her children to join in next week.
I head off out into the sunshine feeling energised by what has been created in that room in a single afternoon and looking forward to seeing the outcome of all the work that’s been done on Newport Legends, on stage soon!
Maindee Legends will be performed on the Garden Stage at the Maindee Festival at 1.40pm on Saturday 1st July.
The full Newport Legends performance will take place at The Riverfront in Newport at 4.30pm on Sunday 2nd July.