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Thursday, February 12, 1998 Published at 08:10 GMT


'Heroes don't dance'
image: [ Opera heroes rarely seen on stage - Lawrence of Arabia, Scott of the Antarctic and Col. Percy Fawcett, the Amazon explorer ]
Opera heroes rarely seen on stage - Lawrence of Arabia, Scott of the Antarctic and Col. Percy Fawcett, the Amazon explorer

It's opera, but not as we know it. Although it is organised by London's Royal Opera House, there are no plush top seats for 75, you won't hear any Italian singing, and Pavarotti certainly won't make it on to the stage. Instead, nearly all the singers are amateurs, aged 11 to 68, and their enthusiasm is infectious as they rehearse in a battered old youth centre in Cambridge.

[ image: Waiting for the heroes to dance]
Waiting for the heroes to dance
'Heroes don't dance' is a true people's opera, commissioned especially for amateur performers. The groundwork was laid one-and-a-half years ago, during a community project organised by the Royal Opera House Education Department, the Cambridge Corn Exchange and South Cambridgeshire District Council.

Heroes don't dance (piano rehearsal): Susan realises her brother Jack has died (1'27")
Over 600 people took part during a month of opera workshops and a Summer School, developing story lines and musical ideas for a new opera.

Then two opera professionals took over. Christina Jones tied some of the story lines together and wrote additional material to create the libretto, while composer Julian Grant worked on the music.

'Heroes don't dance' is the result. To opera lovers the themes sound familiar: love, death, betrayal, jealousy, reconciliation. However, the story is closer to 90s Britain than Puccini's Italy, confronting bullying among children, grieving for a dead child, and fear of failure at work and in private life.

The story

[ image: Celebrating Jack's life and commemorating his death]
Celebrating Jack's life and commemorating his death
Jack, a young boy, is bullied at school. During a school trip he dies of an asthma attack. His teacher, George, is tormented by feelings of guilt because of his failure to save the boy's life. So George, who once was a dancing champion, retreats into a fantasy world occupied by heroes like Lawrence of Arabia and Scott of the Antarctic. Like George, the everyday hero, they are "magnificent", but at the same time "magnificent failures" who did not achieve their goals.

George fails to find peace in his fantasy world. Jack's ghost follows him, forcing him to confront life and attend a fancy dress party organised by the school to commemorate Jack's death and celebrate his optimism when he was alive.

This Life

Christina Jones explains the development of the opera's story line (1'10")
Nonetheless, the opera is close to real life. Very close.

John Simmons for example, one of the actors, has a daughter whose asthma attacks forced her repeatedly to be hospitalised. And in the opera John plays Lawrence of Arabia, who died in a motorcycle accident. Last July John barely survived such an accident himself.

[ image: Joseph and Tom, playing the ghost of a bullied school boy]
Joseph and Tom, playing the ghost of a bullied school boy
Tom Howard, 13, and Joseph Fox, 11, who share the role of the dead boy, say everyone in the cast feels like playing a part of himself.

Tom is a fragile looking boy. He plays Jack's ghost convincingly, reliving the boy's bullying and his death, and how he finds the strength to pull George, the teacher, out of his grief.

Tom, 13, and Joseph, 11, say the opera is close to life (28")
Tom is familiar with the concept of death. Six years ago he was diagnosed with Leukaemia, underwent chemotherapy and suffered a relapse before finally receiving a bone marrow transplant. Now 13 years old he has just been signed off the cancer register.

Joseph is a different kind of survivor. At school he was bullied, a victim of racism. Together, they add realism to the role of Jack. Both, says Tom, "have added something to the role, and because there is two of us we add twice as much, it is more personal." Tom and Joseph will each do half the performances.

Opera is hard work

The amateurs work hard. Since December they are in rehearsal, and as the premiere is getting closer they rehearse every weekend plus three nights a week. It is a demanding schedule, but Harry Morrison, 11, who plays one of the pupils, says the experience is "brilliant". Like the others he enjoys sharing the stage with real opera singers and having the backing of "a real professional opera company".

[ image: Christina Jones and Julian Grant]
Christina Jones and Julian Grant
'Heroes don't dance' is not a "Pavarotti opera", says Caitlin Leigh, who plays Jack's sister Susan. But it is real opera.

Composer Julian Grant has made only a few concessions to his amateur cast. Only two roles, those of the teacher George and his wife Gillian, are played by professionals (Jozik Koc and Jillian Arthur), but according to the composer their presence is crucial as they give the amateur singers a "focus" and provide a "real learning experience."

Composer Julian Grant: It's an opera, but written so that amateurs can sing and play it (44")
The opera will be performed in Cambridge for four times, and is scheduled to be revived once the redevelopment of the Royal Opera House has been completed in December 1999.

Heroes don't dance
at the Cambridge Corn Exchange

Thursday, February 19 and Friday, February 20 at 19:30 GMT
Saturday, February 20, at 14:30 and 19:30
Tickets 5, concessions 3

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