Within reach: bringing opera and ballet into schools 13 September 2017

Opera and ballet are not top of most teachers’ lists for school visits, but a new initiative at the Royal Opera House aims to change that, reports Femke Colborne

How many teachers would consider taking a class of children to the Royal Opera House? It’s a prospect that probably seems out of reach to most, even if they do live in London or within commuting distance of the venue. But the organisation’s latest wave of education programmes is giving thousands of children across the UK the chance to experience the sights, sounds and spectacle of the Royal Opera House without even having to leave their hometowns.

It’s all thanks to a new education strategy ratified in March 2015 and now coming to fruition through a series of interactive programmes in schools around the country. The new approach has been spearheaded by Jillian Barker, who was appointed as director of learning and participation in June 2014, and Kim Waldock, general manager of learning and participation since June 2015. In October this year, Waldock will introduce some of the new programmes to teachers through an interactive workshop at Music & Drama Education Expo | Manchester, giving them the chance to try out activities and find out more about how they can get involved.

She admits that opera and ballet are not usually first things that spring to mind when it comes to children’s educational activities. ‘A lot of teachers think opera and ballet are out of the reach of what’s relevant to most children,’ she says. ‘You say opera and people see a 20-stone woman with horns singing Wagner. But that is only a very small part of what we do here. I want to find ways of changing that attitude. I love looking at a piece of music and thinking: “How could a teacher use this to engage children?”’

Waldock joined the Royal Opera House in June 2015 from Australia, where she had been working as director of learning and engagement at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Before that, she spent 22 years as a music teacher, initially as a classroom music specialist and then as an examiner and member of syllabus committees, often hosting teacher training workshops and speaking at conferences. She decided to make the move to the Royal Opera House last year because ‘I had conquered the opportunities in Australia and I was looking for a chance to learn more’.

She immediately felt inspired by Barker’s vision for the Royal Opera House’s education provision. Although the organisation already had a number of successful education programmes – such as Chance to Dance and the Youth Opera Company, which both give young people the opportunity to perform in opera and ballet productions – most of this work was happening around London and the south east. But with the possibilities opened up by digital technology, there was no longer any reason why that should be the case.

‘It was very centralised and a lot of energy was going into serving a few people,’ Waldock says. ‘We had been offering a high-quality service to schools in London, but we wanted to move beyond being London-centric and give the same quality of opportunity to schools around the UK.’ The team also wanted to reassess the way the organisation interacted with teachers: ‘The Royal Opera House was not one of the places teachers thought to go to when they needed support. We needed to make that link, given all the resources that we have here.’

Barker and Waldock immediately set to work on devising a new approach to education that both harnessed digital technology and engaged more closely with teachers to reach as many children as possible. And so, in September 2015, ‘National Nutcracker’ was born. This ten-week programme for Key Stage 2 introduces children to the Royal Opera House through a series of videos and activities designed to inspire imaginative thinking and build skills. By the end of the programme, the children have created their own dance performance inspired by The Nutcracker. Each participating school submits a video of their performance, which is judged by a Royal Ballet panel. All participating schools have the opportunity to attend a local cinema screening of The Nutcracker, and the winning school is invited to bring pupils and accompanying teachers to a special matinee performance of The Nutcracker at the Royal Opera House in London.

Orsett Primary School’s National Nutcracker winners Photo: Brian Slater
Orsett Primary School’s National Nutcracker winners Photo: Brian Slater

Following a successful trial period last year with schools in Thurrock, where the Royal Opera House has a production workshop and costume centre, National Nutcracker has been rolled out to 63 schools around the UK in 2016. The model has proved so popular that the organisation is now trialling a second programme based around the same structure, ‘Create and Sing Carmen’, focused on singing rather than dancing. Because of the Nutcracker’s associations with Christmas, it can only run once a year – but Waldock is hoping that Create and Sing Carmen will run twice a year.

Waldock says getting teachers to engage with the new programmes hasn’t always been easy. ‘It’s all about areas that have fewer cultural opportunities, areas of low cultural engagement. It is challenging, but the only way we can achieve it is to go to their networks. Some of the music hubs have agreed to let us come and do talks, or have connected us with teacher networks. As soon as you get them through the front door, you don’t lose them. It’s getting them through the door that’s the challenge.’

Last year, the Royal Opera House’s education projects reached a total of 17,000 children (that figure also includes the impact of longstanding education programmes such as ‘Fanfare’ and the ‘Design Challenge’). And that number only looks set to grow: if Create and Sing Carmen is a success, the organisation is also considering launching a third ten-week programme themed around Alice in Wonderland.

‘We want to create a legacy in schools so that music is embedded in their culture and serves a greater purpose,’ Waldock says. Teachers will be a central part of that mission: ‘We want every teacher to have a positive experience and feel well supported and confident in what they are doing. We are all interested in giving children a good arts education experience. Maybe they will never get to come to the Royal Opera House but they might go and see an opera locally, or a film screening. It’s about trying to give people access to quality opportunities, reaching more people and a more diverse range of people.’

And for teachers who, having read all this, are still sceptical about bringing opera and ballet into their schools, Waldock has the following message: ‘Come along, do the workshop, see what it’s like and give it a go. Come and see it because you might be surprised.’

The Royal Opera House will present A pathway to outstanding: the curriculum through arts learning at Music & Drama Education Expo | Manchester on 4 October 2017. Register for your free ticket to the show.

Photo credits: Brian Slater
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