Over 800 children from primary schools across the north took to the stage recently to explore through song how our actions are impacting the world around us.
The Water Diviner’s Tale was the latest show in Opera North’s Big Sing, a project which brings together pupils from different schools for a series of performances at local arts venues. Following the company’s production of Handel’s Alcina last season and in preparation for the fully sustainable season planned for 2023, it turned the spotlight on sustainability and the responsibility we must all take for climate change.
Written by award-winning film composer Rachel Portman and librettist Owen Sheers, the work was originally performed at the Proms in 2007. This specially commissioned arrangement saw 7 to 11-year-olds singing alongside a nineteen-piece ensemble from the Orchestra of Opera North at the larger venues and a five-piece ensemble in smaller settings, with a cast of four professional singers and narrator.
Performances took place in Cumbria, Barnsley, Doncaster and Leeds. As Timothy Burke, the conductor, says:
“The most rewarding thing is definitely just seeing so many children enjoying themselves, learning something new and trying singing in a theatre context. It’s like nothing else – combining the storytelling with the music making and the drama.”
The children were joined on stage by actor and singer Jonathan Ainscough as The Water Diviner, soprano Marie Claire Breen, mezzo soprano Camille Maalawy, tenor Joseph Shovelton, baritone Aidan Edwards and Opera North instrumentalists playing violin, cello, clarinet, bass clarinet, percussion and piano. Mohamed, aged 9, who attends Low Road Primary School, appreciated having the chance to play alongside the professionals:
“We did sing before but this has made me more confident. I am excited to be singing with the Orchestra as I play the trumpet and I used to play the cello”
Izabelle, 10, from Windmill Primary School, agreed:
“‘I kind of didn’t feel very confident but now I have started singing a bit more and I feel a lot more confident.”
Aidan Edwards as Baritone, Marie Claire Breen as Soprano, Camille Maalawy as Mezzo Soprano and Joseph Shovelton as Tenor © Tom Arber
Reuben, 10, who attends Silkstone Primary School and who took part in the performance at Barnsley Metrodrome, explained what themes the show explores:
“The show’s about climate change – how we need to stop polluting the air and to save our planet.”
Co-director Lily Dyble tells us more:
“The show is really special. There are two messages. I think the first one is very much a call to action in terms of playing an active role in making changes and I think the other one is actually my favourite quote from the show which is ‘stories can change the future.’ I feel that is really Owen Sheers’ battle cry for the arts and role the arts is playing in the climate crisis.”
“It feels so relevant and I think that’s really great. It should speak to everyone.”
AnaJhai from Hillcrest Academy in Leeds performing with Joseph Shovelton as Tenor and Jonathan Ainscough as The Water Diviner © Tom Arber
For many of the children, it was the first time they had had the opportunity to perform on a stage – something which Lily says should never be underestimated:
“I hope that for some of the children taking part, it will be the start of a lifelong love of theatre and the arts. I think that you can never underestimate the power of a project like this and the difference it might make even just to one child – it certainly had that effect on me when I was younger. You are fostering something much bigger than this single moment I think.”
The feedback from the participants and their parents certainly backed up Lily’s claims:
“It’s been really fun. When you see it all put together, it’s really exciting. I hope we do more”
– Evie, 10, Silkstone Primary School
“The singers were incredible and what a fabulous message to deliver to our youth – very green, very big message, loved it. All aspects of Opera North are amazing, from the operatic performances to the orchestral side. I’m so happy Izzy is part of it”
– Kaylee Asquith, Izabelle’s Mum and Green Party candidate
Joseph Shovelton as Tenor with pupils from Hillcrest Academy and New Bewerley Community Primary School as the Lost Children © Tom Arber
The project will be repeated next year. Any schools interested in taking part can find out more and register online. In the meantime, Opera North’s work with schools continues with The Cunning Little Vixen School Matinees in early 2023 which will introduce the world of opera and live performance to upper KS2 and KS3 pupils with accompanying workshop.