“Breathe with your whole body – I want to see that energy! Don’t make it a frozen moment of stillness – I want active wonder, five bars of wonder OK? After that, the only people who have any movement are the soloists.”
I‘m in the Clore Studio Upstairs at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, watching a rehearsal of Matthew Herbert’s new opera The Crackle with forty-seven schoolchildren from the Youth Opera Company team and their director Karen Gillingham.
Faust in The Crackle is George: a well-meaning schoolteacher regarded by the school governors and his younger contemporaries as a jolly good sort but a bit passé. Mephistopheles seduces him with electronic technology. In this scene George’s pupils become entranced by what the devil’s brought.
Karen Gillingham is directing them.
“You come in and find this wonderful machine in your classroom! Imagine it in your head. Close your eyes.”
The children are learning the magic of stage language, how to build group reaction by movement as well as song. They know the score. This machine – represented at the moment by a few chairs – is evil but they have to think it’s terrific. The sunlit studio is filled with silent intense imagining.
Karen divides them in three groups.
“You come in breathing wonder, can’t take your eyes off it, If you do, it might do something to you!”
“One lot sees it and stand back, another lot – you, on the right- go right up and start measuring. You can’t take your eyes off it. If you do, it might do something to you! Go!”
Tumbling, excited, they rush in from three directions, acting amazement. But they forget about the tape on the studio floor which marks the walls of the stage wings and the entrances.
“You’ve just gone through a wall!” says Karen. “You have to go round the tape on the floor.”
They laugh and mill and start chattering. It’s like taking the cork out of a fizzy bottle and you realize the immense child energy Karen is channelling and Tim is conducting.
“Hip!” calls Karen and they snap to attention. “Hop!” they immediately answer from all over the taped stage and become again an obedient chorus, drilled and responsive.
“Now, off you go!”
Tim Murray the conductor lifts his hand, they watch the tip of his red pencil and start singing, “Have you seen this thing?” turning to each other, acting a brilliantly convincing fearful wonder, just right for something magicked into their classroom by an invisible Mephistopheles.