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Performing with the Opera North Youth Chorus

The Opera North youth ensembles get the chance to become involved in all aspects of the creative process from composition to performance. With auditions and taster rehearsals for the groups taking place this month, we chatted to director Matthew Eberhardt about the Opera North Youth Chorus‘ recent production of Aesop’s Tales.

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When did you start discussing this project?

I started working with the Education Team over a year ago to find a piece that was musically exciting for both the young people and the audience with a suitable level of technical difficulty. We also wanted something which would allow for participant input and enable us to explore lots of different types of theatre-making. We soon realised we were probably never going to find something that did all of those things, so we decided to create something new. We identified Bob Chilcott’s Aesop’s Fables as a good starting point, and used that as our musical canvas on which to project our own narratives and ideas.

Members of the Opera North Youth Chorus performing in Aesop's Tales © Amy Charles

How much input did the young people have into the final piece?

We asked the members of the Youth Chorus to provide stories of real situations they had experienced or seen that in some way connected to the five fables in the choral work. Their response was fantastic – honest and insightful – and gave us the information we needed to shape the event. Most of their stories were personal, so that led us to a bedroom setting, and using table lamps for the design. There were numerous references to social media and phones, so we knew that had to be part of the performance in some way. They also spoke about their relationship to music and what it was like being part of the Youth Chorus community, and that gave us an ending.

What was the pianist, composer and sound artist James Batty’s involvement?

Whilst we were using a choral work, we knew we didn’t want the event to feel like a concert. Usually a concert has a start-and-stop rhythm, whereas we wanted to create something that was more continuous and atmospheric. James composed a series of electronic songs and soundscapes that helped move us from one story into the next and he also explored different ways of using the vocal talents of the group. This gave the performance variety and allowed us to be much more playful in how we used music and sound to tell stories.

Rehearsing Aesop's Tales - a production written and performed by the Opera North Youth Chorus © Amy Charles

What difference do you think it makes to the young people to work with professional artists?

I think any creative is always trying to push forward the work they make, and explore ideas in new and interesting ways. What the ONYC members get in return is the opportunity to be part of a process where real artistic questions are being asked. It is never a case of us telling the participants ‘you should be doing it like this’, as no one will learn anything from that. Rather, we aim to offer an opportunity for listening and collaboration, which benefits everyone regardless of how experienced they are.

What skills did the participants develop?

The key skill was being creative in the broadest sense, which included the young people expressing themselves as performers in many different ways. We did a lot of work on the physical side of performance, ranging from a simple walk across a space to more complex choreographed sequences led by our brilliant choreographer Amy Lovelock. Amy, James and myself also worked with Youth Chorus Master Nicholas Shaw to find a performance style that wove together acting, singing and dancing as much as possible.

Young performers from the Opera North Youth Chorus perform Aesop's Tales © Amy Charles

Why do you think it’s important for young people to take part in projects like this?

I think the experience you have in a project like this reaches far beyond simply becoming a better performer. Rather, it’s the opportunity to work towards a common goal, in a rewarding and intensive way, asking questions and finding solutions as you go. When you’re able to create something that works, the sense of achievement is shared by everyone involved.

Auditions for the Opera North Youth Chorus (ages 14-19) are taking place on Thursday 5 September in Leeds. Taster sessions will be held for the Opera North Children’s Chorus (ages 8-12) and Opera North Young Voices (ages 12-15) at Yorkshire Dance on Thursday 12 September. Anyone not able to make these dates can still express an interest and will be kept informed on future auditions. 

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