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English Touring Opera: The company with education at its heart

A performance of English Touring Opera’s Shackleton’s Cat. Photo: Bob Workman A performance of English Touring Opera’s Shackleton’s Cat. Photo: Bob Workman
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Education has been at the heart of English Touring Opera since its formation in 1979. Launched as Opera 80 by the Arts Council of Great Britain, its remit to make opera accessible to the widest possible audience remains unchanged.

Lending considerable ballast to ETO’s core production work is its education department, one of the most active and innovative throughout opera. Led by Tim Yealland, its work is marked by an elastic definition of education that has seen the company forge a distinctive role in engaging with children with special educational needs, as well as people with dementia. What it’s not, insists Yealland, is an exercise in audience building. Instead, he describes the ethos of ETO’s education work as being “about now, not the future, and a fantastic catalyst to create new work”.

He adds: “It’s about providing opportunities for young and old to properly express themselves, with the input of approachable professionals working alongside them to create new things. It can be a unique, uplifting experience.”

For artistic director and chief executive James Conway, the assumption that education work is a means to building audiences for mainstream productions is decidedly moot.

“I hope it’s true, but the important aspect of our education work is that it is about engagement and interaction, not passive consumption. We want to show that opera is something exciting to do and has relevance to participants’ lives.”

Over the company’s lifetime, ETO’s approach to education and outreach work has changed in profound ways. It’s no longer, says Yealland, an exercise in box-ticking. He explains: “We’ve come a long way from sending a singer into schools to sing a couple of arias and talk about career opportunities.”

That change is evidenced by the 300 or so workshops and interactive performances the company’s education department undertakes each year, involving nearly 15,000 participants. On top of that, there are two full productions performed by cast members drawn from the main company.

Ranging far and wide in content and themes, previous education-led productions have included the primary school-focused Antarctic legend of Shackleton’s Cat, the family-oriented Laika the Spacedog (first staged in 2013 and revived earlier this year) and the Wolverhampton-based community opera Zeppelin Dreams.


5 things you need to know about English Touring Opera

1. Its spring 2016 season toured to 21 venues and was the largest tour by a national Arts Council England-funded opera company.

2. ETO has helped launch the careers of singers including Amanda Echalaz and Sarah Connolly, and gave the world premiere of Alexander Goehr’s opera Promised End in 2010.

3. ETO Education has commissioned 11 new operas so far in 2015/16.

4. ETO won its first Olivier award in 2014 for “brave and challenging” productions of Michael Tippett’s King Priam and Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan.

5. Handel’s Xerxes, Monteverdi’s Ulysses’ Homecoming and Cavalli’s La Calisto are part of ETO’s Venetian season of baroque opera, which opens at the Hackney Empire on October 8

This year’s offerings are no less eclectic. With a libretto by Yealland and music by Russell Hepplewhite, Silver Electra is an opera profiling the aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart, which also deals with dementia and memory loss. Led by composer and DJ Llywelyn ap Myrddin, Different will be created by a group of young adults with autism or Asperger syndrome.

“Neither piece particularly relates to anything the main company will be doing, but it reaches the whole scope of what we, as an opera company, can provide. We do a huge amount of work with people with dementia around the country. The emphasis, though, is not on memory loss. It’s about creative appetite and the means to express it.”

What results from such projects, Yealland maintains, is opera. He adds: “They’re not musicals. And they’re not plays. They may be freer in form and style than our main productions, but that’s because their intentions are totally different.”

Performance is one aspect of ETO’s education work, says Conway. “But it’s not the only point of it. The process of collaborating with participants, of having them involved and contributing, is just as important.”

Nor are the benefits of education projects exclusive to the participants, adds Yealland. “The rewards for our professional singers are immense. There’s nothing quite like the response of 200 children right in front of you to change your view of how you as an artist engage with your audience, especially when your relationship with them is actively interactive.”

Striking out for new ground this autumn will be a staging of Bach’s St John Passion, described by Conway as “a new kind of performance; an attempt to cross-fertilise, develop and diversify”, in partnership with 30 cathedral, community and gospel choirs – “all kinds of people” – around the country.

Yealland says: “We’ve re-thought the nature of the chorales [the luminous choral pieces at its heart] to accommodate choirs that wouldn’t normally work within opera, and commissioned new versions of them in English by a broad range of writers.”

Tellingly, the contributors – including former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Nigerian novelist Chibundu Onuzo, mindfulness guru Maitreyabandhu and John McCarthy, who was taken hostage in Lebanon for five years – have found a common theme.

“Without prompting, they have all picked up on the rather scary climate of our times and the need to engage with each other. It works well with the breadth of the choirs involved and our decision to divide the role of the evangelist between male and female singers.”

There’s something of the evangelical about the determination and nationwide reach of ETO’s education work itself.

“Why wouldn’t we be?” asks Yealland. “It’s all part and parcel of what we do. We believe in the work and the possibility of creating something magical and transformatory. It’s always a challenge to raise the money for these projects, but the rewards are considerable. We’ve never said no.”

Profile: English Touring Opera

General director: James Conway
Head of education: Tim Yealland
Number of productions: 18 (including 9 for children)
Number of performances: 164 (including 85 education outreach performances), plus 303 workshops
Audience/participants: 60,200 (including workshops)
Core staff team: 14
Funding 2014/15: £2.1 million income, including £1.8 million from Arts Council England (NPO and strategic touring scheme); £177,850 from trusts and foundations; £98,598 from donations and Friends organisation
Funding 2015/16: £1.9 million from ACE (including strategic touring grant), plus £180,000 strategic touring for children’s opera. Trusts, foundations and donations not yet available
Address: 63 Charterhouse Street, London, EC1M 6HJ
Website: englishtouringopera.org.uk
Contact: admin@englishtouringopera.org.uk, 020 7833 2555

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