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Reaching for the stars; Children from all walks of life are breaking barriers with a collaborative community opera, writes Christopher Morley.

Byline: Christopher Morley

Stratford-upon-Avon's Civic Hall will be transformed into outer space next week when a new community opera based on the story of Homer's Odyssey is premiered there. y Space Odyssey - an Intergalactic Opera is the brainchild of David Curtis, conductor and artistic director of the Strat-t ford-based Orchestra of the Swan which has been working for several years on various projects at Welcombe Hills School in the town, a rare specialist arts college for children with special needs.

He had the idea of integrating the work of these five to 19-year-olds into a collaboration with mainstream schools, involving children, teachers, carers and parents, and thus the idea of this operatic project was born.

"No matter what their level of ability, everyone will be able to participate at an appropriate level, and the aim is to increase self-esteem and encourage social interaction," he says. "I hope this will create a legacy where musical skills and confidence will be ongoing at the school."

David approached the Talking Birds theatre company, based in Coventry, with his Odyssey idea, and Nick Walker, writer with the company, was enthusiastic.

"How about doing it in space?" was his response. "Homer was the father of the epic, but he's not too good at jokes. I'm hoping he'd have enjoyed the lighter touch we're bringing to this story."

So Ulysses is a space-ship commander victorious in an intergalactic war, desperately trying to navigate home to his wife Penelope in time for tea and to avoid the blandishments of Planet Siren and the threats of the space beast Scyllar. Walker's text is witty, allusive, and appeals both to the children and to know-w ing adults.

And Derek Nisbet's score is catchy and clear. When I attended a rehearsal at Welcombe Hills (in the school hall, with lunch quietly being served from the caf-f eteria at the back of the room, the dinner-ladies enthralled), I left afterwards with two memorable earworms slugging it out in my head.

The mainstream schools involved are Thomas Jolyffe and Wilmcote primary schools, and the results of the interaction have been heartening.

"It's lovely the way the children have integrated," says flautist and workshop leader Diane Clarke.

"It's been a great leveller. It doesn't mat-t ter if they're going to get five straight As at A-level, or whether they have Down's Syndrome".

Simon Chalk, principal second violinist in the Orchestra of the Swan, also a workshop leader (and, incidentally, music director for the likes of Chris de Burgh and Il Divo), chips in, referring to the regrettable discomfort mainstream children feel when faced with those with special needs.

"We had a rehearsal and afterwards some of the kids came up and said 'we made two new friends today' - when often people just ignore each other in the street. And you don't have to compromise standards here."

David Curtis grins with enthusiasm over the way things have gone with this project. "We've all learned so much, and this is certainly not a children's amdram production.

"We've worked to high-quality professional production values, everything aimed at the best level, and the children are raising their aspirations.

''It's like a big salad-bowl - I just chucked in all these ingredients and look what's come out of it."

Space Odyssey has come about with y the help of funding from Youth Music, Arts Council England (West Midlands) and Welcombe Hills School itself, as well as substantial private donations, but many more scores of thousands of pounds are needed so that the legacy of the project can be developed over the next few years.

But the value of the present moment remains undeniable - the children from these three schools responding to the discipline of an arm raised for attention, as they concentrate and focus on their work for three hours at a time, giving their attention to detail and colouring, and understanding, thanks to the tireless communication of the production team, exactly why these things are important.

"They were well-prepared before the first rehearsal with some workshops beforehand. And we didn't give them scores - they don't need the music, they just learned the show as they went along," says Simon.

Helping them learn is the dedicated and energetic team of professionals coaching and mentoring the children.

Apart from David Curtis, Diane Clark, Simon Clark and Nick Walker, also giv-v ing their all during the rehearsal I was privileged to attend were composer Derek Nisbet, director Steve Johnstone, and the extraordinary vocal coach Rebecca Ledgard (education officer of Ex Cathedra). There are also the two charismatic principals: Matthew Sharp (Odysseus) and Georgia Ginsberg (Penelope), both with impressive Glyndebourne credentials.

Derek Nisbet is well used to creating music for unusual situations - a tight-t rope walk between church spires on Millennium Eve, theatre in an underground car-park, the decommissioning of both a hospital and a livestock mart - and he appreciates the stimulus of this assignment.

He says: "We wanted to make it something we would like to watch, and this was a natural idiom for me. We like humour, we like tunes, we like big emotions. And there are absolutely no concessions to the children, whom we take to the highest standards of which they're capable. And, in writing for the theatre, there's always a performance date."

Simon Chalk sums up, after admitting to the "heart-on-sleeve" factor of working with these uninhibited young people: "This is music for a purpose. This isn't art for art's sake. This hasn't cost a bucket-load of money, and everyone's going to come out of it having had a great experience."

Space Odyssey is at the Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon on Friday, April 23 (Shakespeare's birth and death) at 4.30pm, and on April 24 (4pm). Running time 60 minutes.

Details on 01789 207100

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Welcombe Hills and Thomas Jolyffe school pupils in rehearsal for Space Odyssey - an Intergalactic Opera r
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Apr 15, 2010
Words:974
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