All grown up 23 November 2017

Max Wheeler will be giving a seminar about Grown: A Grime Opera at the Music & Drama Education Expo | London in February. Register for your FREE tickets here! 

Opera is an international art form spanning several hundred years, while the genre of grime started off underground and has been around for less than 20. Claire Jackson meets the man who has made an unlikely pairing of the two

At a glance, opera and grime seem unlikely bedfellows. The first is a multifaceted art form that brings together classical music, visual art, literature and theatre, and has a heritage that spans over 400 years. The second genre is a fledgling in comparison: grime music emerged at the turn of the century and draws on rap, hip-hop and garage elements. And despite recent efforts to broaden the appeal of opera – such as the V&A and Royal Opera House’s current collaboration involving a cutting-edge exhibition and wave of BBC broadcasts – a Venn diagram would show little crossover between fans of opera and grime.

Grime artist Eyez – Image credit: Marcus Wheeler

The lack of divergence didn’t deter producer Max Wheeler, who recently premiered what may be the world’s first ‘grime opera’, written for use in schools. The idea came to Wheeler while he was on tour with his band, Anushka. ‘I’d recently written some new “school-appropriate” grime music for a school tour in Essex that I’d done with grime artist Eyez,’ recalls Wheeler. ‘I was reading The Rest Is Noise by Alex Ross at that time, while also writing electronic soul music and I wondered about combining classical with grime.’

Wheeler was given encouragement for the project by Essex Music Services, who were keen for its flagship ensemble Essex Youth Orchestra to be involved. Essex Music Education Hub commissioned the work and Wheeler began writing, working with Peter Riley (who has collaborated with the Heritage Orchestra and Southbank Sinfonia, among others) to create a full orchestral score and chorus.

Wheeler integrated the project into his work for Charanga, for whom he curates online learning tutorials under the VIP studio sessions banner. ‘We have 25,000-30,000 students using it now,’ he says. ‘There’s advice on how to produce house music, hip-hop, grime, using classical music – all sorts. We put a call out to students via VIP to crowdsource music for the grime opera. We also ran a competition for a winner to get to perform their music with Eyez and the orchestra.’

Image credit: Marcus Wheeler

More than 90 students were involved in the first performance. The plot centres around school days, with themes about growing up, developing and coming to terms with the responsibilities of adult life. The choir acts as narrator, while soloists speak in the first person. ‘The idea is that we will do different versions of it with different hubs around the country,’ explains Wheeler. ‘The work seems to have generated so much excitement; as far as I know this is the first grime opera.’

Collaboration has always been important to Wheeler, but he recognises that not everyone is comfortable working across genres: ‘I feel that people from a traditional background sometimes feel threatened by grime; similarly, people doing grime and hip-hip can feel threatened by music theory,’ he says. ‘We’ve ended up with a situation where everyone feels anxious about everyone else.’

In addition to stylistic concerns, practical matters come into play, too. ‘There’s often the attitude of “if we have a grime project we will have to lose the woodwind ensemble to pay for it”. There’s a real threat to music in schools. In day one of year seven, if you ask “who likes music?” 95 per cent of hands will go in the air, but when we get to options at GCSE, only seven per cent choose it. Bringing genres together potentially offers a way to increase engagement. It’s a huge opportunity.

‘I didn’t do music GCSE and as a professional artist, working with producers on a regular basis, I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t do it, as the theory would have really helped. I found my way to classical music eventually – hip-hop took me to jazz, jazz took me to Debussy, and Debussy took me to all sorts of composers. It’s important to teach children that progression. Obviously there are loads of educators already doing that, but in some places we need to push harder before it’s too late.

‘Look at grime artists like Dizzee Rascal: his album Boy in da Corner was made on computers in a school, after lessons. That album wouldn’t have happened if his school didn’t offer music. There’s more to music education than getting children in year eight to understand Baroque lute music.’

It’s this impassioned call to arms, along with his enthusiasm and drive, that makes Wheeler a successful educator and artist in his own right. After getting his first record deal at 20, Wheeler went to study American literature in Berkeley, California. While he was there, he volunteered at a hip-hop society. ‘When I got back to West Yorkshire I thought that if I could teach rap to Californian teenagers I could do it in the UK, too,’ he says. ‘I got a job as a youth worker – and haven’t stopped since. I began with offering CPD in schools: showing teachers how to use their music tech to make dubstep, for example.

‘Everything I do is collaborative and some of the most important lessons I’ve learned have come from working with people outside of my discipline. That’s what makes a rounded musician – and a better educator.’