Operatunities for All

20th September 2019

Joy Sable profiles a scheme designed to make the arts accessible to all children, whatever their background, and joins the audience for some very special performances at the Royal Opera House…

Half an hour before curtain up at the Royal Opera House, and the foyer hums with the familiar buzz of anticipation. Usually you’ll find the place filled with men and women dressed for the occasion, champagne being sipped at the many bars throughout the building, and mouth-watering food at eye-watering prices being enjoyed at the various restaurants in the newly renovated complex. Rightly or wrongly, opera and ballet are still regarded as entertainment for the elite – but it is not always so, and several times in the year, the Opera House buzzes with a very different kind of atmosphere.

On these joyous occasions, the public areas are filled with hundreds of children, all in school uniform. Some find their way to the downstairs cafeteria, where they unpack their lunchboxes and proceed to munch through crisps and sandwiches; others take over the foyer and sit on the plush carpet to enjoy their food. The sedate low conversation of adults at one of the world’s greatest opera houses is replaced by higher pitched shrieking and laughing, as teachers try to maintain some semblance of control over their charges.

These are the Schools’ Matinees: operas and ballets put on especially for young people who may not have had the opportunity to experience this calibre of performance before. The matinees are the Opera House’s longest running educational initiative and have been a regular feature since 1977.

Amy McGann is Head of National Programmes in the Learning & Participation department at the Royal Opera House. She says: “It is important that we support children and young people to have their first encounter with opera and ballet. Tickets are allocated based on a set of criteria, with priority given to schools based on percentage of Free School Meals and Pupil Premium, schools outside of London and first time attendees.” (The Pupil Premium grant is additional funding for publicly funded schools, allocated for schools to improve the academic outcomes of disadvantaged pupils and close the attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers.)

Attending a matinee is a wonderful opportunity for a child to experience the world’s best opera or ballet, at a fraction of the price that members of the public would normally pay. A top-price ticket in the stalls for a popular opera can be over £180 and ballet is only marginally less. The Schools’ Matinees charge only £7.50 per ticket, whether a child is seated in the stalls or at the back of the amphitheatre. The tickets are the same for both students and teachers, and it is up to each school if they cover that cost or pass the cost on to their students.

“It is the same price all over the house,” says Amy. “Several factors are considered when allocating seats, including access requirements and the size of the groups. We welcome applications from all kinds of different schools and work with them to make sure our Schools’ Matinees are as accessible as possible.”
In the 18/19 season, 11,216 students and teachers attended the Schools’ Matinees. Next season there will be nine performances in total – six on the main stage and three in the Linbury Theatre (the smaller, more modern theatre which is also part of the Opera House complex).

For each performance, everything is done to make the experience enjoyable for the students. Programmes are free and written in easy to understand English; even the
ice-creams during the intervals are cheaper than at a normal performance.

Matinees this past season have included the ballet Romeo & Juliet, and the opera Tosca. There is a palpable difference in atmosphere at these performances. Entering the magnificent auditorium, students reach for their mobile phones and take photos of the impressive pale blue and gold ceiling; they cheer wildly when the lights go down and when someone appears from behind the plush red curtains on the stage.

At Romeo & Juliet it is the director of the Royal Ballet, Kevin O’Hare. His welcome includes a plea not to talk during the performance – it puts the dancers off.

During the ballet, the young audience reacts in unexpected ways: Mercutio’s death gets some titters, while the beginning of Act III, which sees Romeo and Juliet asleep on a bed, provokes much suggestive whooping. At the end of the ballet, everyone is cheering and applauding the dancers enthusiastically as they take their curtain calls.

Claire Calvert, a ballerina in the Royal Ballet, says that dancing at a Schools’ Matinee has its own challenges. “You feel like you are at a pop concert. They clap at everything and if you are trying to do a serious show, it is actually quite hard.”

At least there is no language barrier with ballet. Opera, often sung in a foreign language, can seem inaccessible to many people, although this proved not to be the case when pupils from Rickmansworth School recently watched a performance of Tosca. Christopher O’Reilly, one of the teachers accompanying them, said: “I think nearly all students were daunted by coming to the opera… they all thought that it would be three hours of non-stop singing without a break and that the singers would just stand in the middle of the stage and sing to the audience.”

When he showed them the ROH trailer for Tosca, however, the students started to realise that opera was so much more than just standing and singing. “They did still worry that the fact that it was being sung in Italian would make it hard for them to follow the story and to understand what was going on. After the production though, they were all able to tell me exactly what had happened and were raving about the surtitles above the stage.”

For Ted, one of the students from the school, the outing was a revelation: “I thought that the Royal Opera House carried the sound amazingly and was the best venue for an event I have ever visited. Tosca has most definitely made me want to go and see another opera, and I will most likely be going back to the Royal Opera House.”

Niveda is another young fan: “The opera was not what I had expected. It exceeded my expectations in the actual singing and the way the story was projected. Also, the interesting plot made it all the better. My favourite part was in the plot twist, as it kept me on the edge of my seat. I also really enjoyed the fact that each line was projected in singing, but the emotion was still present.”

Niveda appreciated the stunning view of the performance that the Opera House gave her. “I also enjoyed watching the orchestra play non-stop,” she added. “I would definitely want to watch another opera, as I am intrigued as to how different operas can be portrayed.”

“The pupils’ reactions were everything I could have hoped for,” says Christopher. “I had hoped that they would be engrossed in the opera from the sounding of the first chord… thankfully this was the case. I have already had several pupils asking when the next trip to the ROH will be, which is fantastic and the whole reason behind this wonderful Schools’ Matinee scheme.”

For further details of the Schools’ Matinees, contact schoolsm@roh.org.uk

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