“Hearing the voice for the first time, their mouths just dropped open and they giggled because they didn’t know what else to do. Opera has a really strong physical presence so it sort of hits you in the face when you hear it. Those students were really quite taken aback by the sound that these singers were making,” says Ioanna Salmanidis, Victorian Opera’s Education Officer.

Students in Victorian Opera’s 2018 Access All Areas: Livestream ProgramPhoto supplied

She has had ample time to observe the effect that opera has on students through the company’s Access All Areas: Livestream Program. Run for the first time last year, primary school students across Victoria were introduced to the art form through a series of interactive workshops livestreamed direct to classrooms. Cast and crew were on hand to illuminate different aspects of the creative process, from what’s required in rehearsal to lighting design and the construction of sets, with workshops also taking place in front of a live audience of primary school students. This comprehensive introduction to opera culminated in a livestreamed performance of Hansel and Gretel. The program reached over 1400 students from 40 primary schools.

Access All Areas returns this month, centred on the making of Alice Through the Opera Glass, a new pasticcio featuring hits by Mozart, Verdi and Bizet to a text by Emma Muir-Smith. Although similarly structured to its inaugural outing – students will take part in four 45-minute workshops, supplemented by classroom activities and resources – Salmanidis says she has built in more interactivity.

“We have changed the program a little bit this year to make it more engaging. Last year we [conducted] a few interviews and the feedback we got were that some students got a little bit restless at times so we’ve made sure there are more activities involved, and more things happening right there at the time rather than lots of pre-recorded content.”

Additions made include a livestreamed costume fitting, further continuing the program’s aim to provide a holistic look at what goes in to putting on an opera. Naturally, the very first workshop provides students with a basic introduction to the art form, with a demonstration of the different voice types they might encounter. Salmanidis says that many participating students have no prior knowledge of opera, but are immediately struck by the sounds they’re presented with, “falling so much in love with it that they try and imitate the singers. They really feel the impact in some way.”

Victorian Opera’s 2018 Access All Areas: Livestream ProgramPhoto supplied

As the workshops progress, students are shown all the elements involved in the production of an opera. “We introduce them to the designers and show them how the costumes are designed, how the set is designed and the process behind that and where the designers get their ideas from. In the third workshop we’re going into the rehearsal room so they’ll meet the director [Brock Roberts] and his ideas for the production and who he works with to prepare for it,” she explains.

“The final workshop is going to be from the Arts Centre Melbourne, the backstage in fact, so they’ll see how the set goes up on stage. They’ll also go behind and see the sound room and the lighting room, and then they’ll get to see the orchestra in rehearsal and learn a little bit about the instruments in the orchestra and how it all comes together.”

Salmanidis is confident that Alice Through the Opera Glass will serve as a perfect introduction, given its familiar tale and clever weaving of opera’s greatest hits. She has specifically taken advantage of its pasticcio nature to provide insight into the art form across history, exploring the differences between the composers and the contexts in which they were creating their now cherished works.

“We noticed a really big difference with students who watched the performance last year, they were much more engaged and seemed to have a bit more understanding of what was happening because they had seen everything that happened in the lead up to it and all the elements that are involved to bring the production to stage. It all builds to a greater appreciation.”

“Being able to bring opera to the lives of so many young people in the state and even to those in the most remote areas who would be very unlikely to come across it any other way has been so rewarding,” Salmanidis adds. “The most encouraging feedback we’ve received is just how much it stays with students for a long time. From the survey we sent out afterwards, there were quite a few comments from teachers saying that they were still having their kids sing the operas or trying to imitate the singers. That’s why we do this program, to really change their lives and to just introduce them to something they’ll remember forever.”

Victorian Opera’s 2019 Access All Areas: Livestream Program is on from May 22 – June 17

The program is available free to schools that purchase tickets to attend Alice Through the Opera Glass at the theatre, or for $1 per student for schools outside a 150km radius of Melbourne. Schools outside this radius can livestream the performance into their classroom for no additional cost

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