“I know you want to see the singers,” conductor Tassos Simeonidis tells the choir in an earnest tone, “but this time you are the ones who have to sing and you can only sing well if you have practiced first.”
His words would have sounded out of place at the Greek National Opera’s main venue, the Olympia Theater in central Athens, but not at the 12th Elementary School of Palaio Faliro. The members of the choir, looking somewhat like Hogwarts students in their Harry Potter-esque cloaks, have already diverted their attention to the stage where dancer-narrators Eleni Moscha and Giorgos Papathanasiou are rehearsing. For a moment, they seem to have forgotten their mission, which is to accompany the singers and orchestra of the GNO’s educational program in the last scene of a special production of “The Barber of Seville.”
Getting children involved in the process is the best way for them to fall in love with opera. This is the main theory behind the GNO initiative “Interactive Opera for Elementary Schools,” financed by the Greek state and European Union funding. Seventy schools took part in the program in the 2012-13 period and by December it will have been taken to 52 more schools.
The process for schools that want to participate is easy: They send in an application, which is processed, then the teachers who will be supervising the program at the school receive a file with guidelines.
The first step of the program is for fifth- and sixth-graders, who help to design the stage sets, and the school choir, which starts practicing the song that has been selected.
About a month later, the coaches arrive from the Greek National Opera. They organize theatrical games for the children, teaching them that there needs to be close cooperation between the various professionals, from the musicians to the costume designers, for an opera to be a success. At the same time, the pupils talk to the conductor, the singers and the dancers, they explore the differences between opera and theater, and they learn some of the breathing techniques used by professionals. Finally, they learn the names of all the musical instruments. This process takes two days, and ends with the final rehearsal for the show, which is officially staged the day after.
The audience is made up of other students, parents and teachers. Thanks to a combination of songs, dialogues and jokes – the director, Costis Papaioannou, is exploring the relationship between comic opera and comedia dell’arte – “The Barber of Seville” is delivered as a spectacle to be enjoyed by everyone. Nowhere is the children’s enthusiasm more evident than when they boo at Doctor Bartolo (Anastasios Lazarou) when he describes an aria as “rather tiresome.” Their contribution is most notable in the final part of the opera in a painting of Figaro’s dream and the hand-painted uniform worn by Berta the servant. The most valuable contributors are the choir singers, who join in the closing refrain: “May love and faith eternal reign in both your hearts…”