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March 10, 2008

Magic Moments at Covent Garden: Going to a Schools' Matinee gives one a much better impression of contemporary schoolchildren than one gets from newspapers or television, argues Lincoln Allison

Posted by Lincoln Allison

Lincoln Allison goes to Covent Garden and learns about more than Eugene Onegin.

Every year the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden puts on matinees for schools. Prime stalls tickets go for £6, about 10% of their normal price. I would not know this, but for being a Headmistress's Consort, whose presence is required in order to allow some teachers to stay behind and hold the fort. It also helps that I'm male. In short, I tag along on the health and safety ticket.

But I do want to report what an astonishing experience it is. Imagine the Royal Opera House with two thousand children, aged 8 to 18: brightly coloured sweatshirts for the state primaries and blazers for the older and posher kids. The noise is a problem as you would expect. What else do you imagine? That the place would have an atmosphere of boredom and protest and sloping-out-for-a-fag. Pre-pubescent restlessness and adolescent ostentation? Mutterings during the arias: "This is so-o-o-o boring."

Not a bit of it! The performance I attended this year was Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin sung in Russian with surtitles; not an easy choice. It is a lavish production with grand sets representing the country estate, the forest and the frozen Neva in St. Petersburg among others (with snow falling where appropriate). In fact, measured in terms of the costs of sets and costumes it might be the most lavish stage production I've ever seen; it was devised by Steven Pimlott, who died in 2007 and the director's mantle has been assumed by Elaine Kidd.

When the curtain goes up the children cheer at the tops of their voices and then fall silent, breaking into applause when a song is finished. Naturally they get this wrong sometimes and clap during pauses. (I say this in a general way because I've been before and it always happens.)

Now I've been to Covent Garden with the grown-ups and I am lucky enough to see a great deal of live performance of every kind. In fact, only a couple of weeks ago I was at a performance of a Tchaikovsky opera (Iolanta) in Moscow. The comparison could not be starker: the Moscow/global adult audience was detached and world-weary. Normally, we adults trek along to the opera, theatre or ballet with other things on our minds; we are impressed or not impressed, we discuss a little and then we think about eating and drinking or tomorrow’s work. This was different.

For all the social and cultural complexity of its context Onegin is an elemental story. Deep in the Russian countryside a teenager called Tatiana has a grand pash for a man in his twenties called Onegin who has just inherited a local estate. She tells him so in a note but he rebuffs her. He disappears, travelling.

Some years later he sees her in St. Petersburg and realises that she is a sophisticated woman and that he loves her. But she is married to his elderly relative, the Prince Gremin. He accosts her in her husband's library and demands that they elope. She admits that she loves him; they almost kiss - she pulls away; they fall to the floor - she struggles to her feet, singing the while. She will do her duty, fulfil her obligations, she insists and she leaves.

The opera ends with Onegin alone and distraught on stage amid crashing chords from the orchestra. At which point something happens which would never happen in a normal production: the audience, who have been crackling with tension, erupts into a great roaring cheer.

My first instinct was that they were cheering Tatiana's choice of duty over instinct and I think there was an element of that. (Wouldn't it be fascinating to know if children who live with their own two genetic parents react differently from the more complicated cases?)

But one teacher told me that all this had been discussed in preparation for the Covent Garden visit and 21 out of 25 thought that if Tatiana "really loved" Onegin she should leave her husband. Perhaps some just cheer because it's over and they can go home, but this seemed to be contradicted by the rapture of the curtain calls.

In the end I decided that the main factor at work here was simply that most of them had very little experience of professional live performance of any kind and were the opposite of world weary - they were grateful to the people who had sung for them and they were awed. The performers themselves, many of them understudies in evening performances, seemed to be gratified and astonished by their reception. I had come across some of them at a briefing the week before and formed the impression that the Schools Matinee did not represent the height of their ambition. "Get out there and sing an aria in Russian to two thousand English schoolchildren!" doesn't sound like the best job in the world, does it? But I think that Hibla Gerzmava, receiving her accolades as Tatiana, might have changed her mind about that.

I recommend the Schools' Matinee, if you can ever get in. It will remind you of what live performance can and should be like. It will give you a much better impression of contemporary schoolchildren than you are ever likely to get from newspapers or television. It will convince you, I am sure, that everybody could enjoy the "high" culture if they didn't define themselves as lowlife. The Schools Matinee is an unequivocally Good Thing!

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career in 2004 to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton.

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