Children giving opera a chorus of approval

Justin Doyle and the Children's Chorus of Opera North.  Photo: Jonny Walton
Justin Doyle and the Children's Chorus of Opera North. Photo: Jonny Walton
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As they prepare to make their stage debut, Sarah Freeman talks to Justin Doyle, the man in charge of Opera North’s Children Chorus.

How do you turn children on to opera? The answer, according to Justin Doyle is simple – you tell them it’s much like film.

“There is a lot written about the fact children don’t like, or find it difficult to access, classical music but I really don’t buy it. The truth is that if no one has told them that it’s not cool to listen to opera, they approach it with a completely open mind. It’s generally only other people’s prejudices which colour their judgement. Opera is about telling a story, it’s incredibly theatrical and visual and if they can relate that to what it feels like when they go to the cinema, then the two worlds don’t seem so far apart.”

As if to prove his theory, six months ago, Justin agreed to become musical director of Opera North’s brand new Children’s Chorus. The first regular ensemble of its kind in the UK, the Leeds-based company held workshops in more than a dozen schools across the city in the hope of encouraging youngsters to audition. It worked and when they met for the first rehearsals in May, more than 90 children were waiting in the wings.

“I was already working with the company when Rebecca Walsh, who is the head of education, told me that she had a plan to start a dedicated children’s chorus,” says Justin. “I just thought ‘what a lovely idea’. The education department already does a lot of work with schools and this project takes that one stage further. The response to the workshops was incredible, but I guess we shouldn’t have been too surprised.

“People say that it’s a real struggle to get boys interested in classical music, but I think their disinterest has been completely overblown.

“A third of our chorus is made up of boys and we really don’t have to twist anyone’s arm to make them turn up to rehearsals.”

Earlier this year, some of the children took part in the company’s recent production of The Queen of Spades, going on tour with the main cast to London’s Barbican, but next week will see the debut of the entire chorus when they take to the stage of Dewsbury Town Hall.

The concert features a programme of festive music, with a mix of contemporary and traditional songs and Justin is prepared for a few last-minute nerves.

“Practising in a rehearsal room is very different from standing on stage in front of hundreds of people,” says Justin, who runs the chorus with Rachel Staunton. “When you are working with children you have to make sure there is the right mix of fun and hard work, but these are a great bunch to work with.

“They know when it’s time to knuckle down and in the last few weeks they have worked incredibly hard and it really is a joy to hear them sing.”

While the chorus was set up to complement the professional orchestra and chorus of Opera North, as it becomes established the company hopes that it will also provide a pool of talented youngsters who, even if they don’t go onto be musical stars of the future, will have been left with a love opera.

“In many ways it’s a process of osmosis,” adds Justin. “Just being in the theatre, seeing the costumes and hearing about what’s going on the main stage does have an impact. It makes opera familiar. The children are aged from between seven and 13-years-old and it is a really good time to get them interested in music which doesn’t appear in the charts. One of the things I really like doing is introducing them to folk songs.”

The concert next week, which will see organist and compere Gordon Stewart at the helm, will mark the start of a packed programme of events for the children’s chorus, which is funded through the Holbeck Charitable Trust and the Opera North Future Fund.

In the run-up to the London 2012 Olympic Games, arts projects will be taking place across the country as part of the Cultural Olympiad and the children’s chorus will be at the heart of events as part of the Leeds Canvas 2012 project.

The collaboration between eight art organisations, including Opera North, Phoenix Dance and Leeds City Art Gallery, is being masterminded by the Brothers Quay. The American identical twins, Stephen and Timothy Quay, made their name in stop-motion animation, but are now working as artistic directors on the performance OverWorlds and UnderWorlds.

Details of the piece, which will explore the flow of water and people through the city, are being kept tightly under wraps, but various locations in the city will be used as a backdrop and the event will end under the Dark Arches.

“It will be incredibly exciting,” says Justin. “I can’t say too much about it at the moment, but it’s great to think that almost a year after the children’s chorus was set up it will be involved in something as important as the Leeds Canvas.”

Those involved in the project hope that the London Games won’t mark the end of the collaboration and that the city will be in a position to host a major arts project every four years. For Justin and the rest of the team at Opera North, it’s just as important that the newly-launched children’s chorus has similar longevity.

“This was never about bringing a group of children together for a one-off performance,” he says. “It was always about laying the foundations for a permanent chorus which will feed into the work of the rest of the company.

“The fact is that given the opportunity, children love to sing and they love to make music.”

Opera North Christmas Concert, Dewsbury Town Hall, December 21. For tickets call 01924 324501 or book online at www.kirklees.gov.uk/townhalls.

Old and new in concert line-up

The Opera North Christmas concert will combine classic works by Bach and Torelli with new and traditional carols.

Together with the Chorus and Orchestra of Opera North, the company’s Children’s Chorus will also perform The Manchester Carols, a new festive suite by choral composer Sasha Johnson Manning with lyrics by poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy.

The programme also includes traditional favourites, Once in Royal David’s City and Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Cantata No. 140: Wachet Auf, one of Bach’s rarely performed works.