Having cut his teeth as an animateur at Royal Opera House, Opera North and Glyndebourne, Head of Education Tim Yealland is involved with all aspects of ETO’s children’s operas, from devising and writing the librettos to directing the performances. We caught up with him to discuss ETO’s work with children. 


DR: What does music education with ETO mean to you, beyond building an audience of future opera-goers?

TY: It’s about reaching audiences outside our theatre venues. But above all it’s about creating new work with a variety of participants, and about allowing those people the chance to make work as well as perform it. Opera is a great creative platform.

Why write completely new operas for schoolchildren rather than, for example, presenting them with abridged versions of scenes from classic works?

    There is almost nothing I can think of to recommend creating abridgements for children, rather than making strong bespoke work for them that is exciting, accessible and interactive, and that’s written specifically for them. There is also the participatory element – we write songs for the children which are sent out in advance and that appear at key moments in shows. But more than that we want to create operas that are of our time, and that reach out to people now. We are aware too that it’s not just children who need to be engaged by our pieces. The adults in the room need to be addressed and touched by the immediacy of the work.


    Some of the operas you’ve produced, such as Bessie’s Wings, are “devised” with children from different primary schools. Could you tell me a little about how that works? Do the children have a hand in writing any of the music, for example?

    These pieces are really the core of the work we do, in which a group helps create all the elements of a new piece. So, they own the material (lyrics, story, melodies) they eventually perform. We make this work in the context of older people too – for instance our community operas (One Day Two Dawns or Zeppelin Dreams) include people of every age and ability. People love to discover in later life that they have this creativity. Most movingly we see this with people living with dementia – we do four or five of these dementia projects each year (Turtle Song, for example).

    You also create operas, such as This Is My Bed, which are geared towards children with special educational needs. Could you tell me a little about how you think opera can help children with disabilities?

      Children with disabilities are no different from other children – they love stories that are engaging, with good music, dynamic performers and lots of visual flair. We have just been working with autistic teenagers in Wimbledon, who not only created their own opera, which was performed, but who have contributed material that will be part of the new professional opera This Is My Bed. Music and drama are brilliant ways of stimulating people with more severe learning needs.


      It’s notoriously hard to hold a class of children’s attention. How do you respond to these challenges with the operas you put on?

      The different art forms that opera contains are actually ideal for holding a class’s attention. With the operas that we make specifically for young audiences the key is to have a story that grips, and to tell that story in the most direct and unpatronising way, with lots to stimulate the ears and eyes.

      How do the children tend to react to your operas?

        I can say hand on heart that they love them. We go to the same schools and venues year after year, and each visit is carefully evaluated. The stakes are too high to present work that isn’t highly stimulating.

        Many of the operas you direct – Sem’ya, Shackleton’s Cat, Laika, Silver Electra for example – deal with history. Do you think the goal of music education can be to help children understand subjects other than music?

        We are sensitive to the needs of a school in terms of curriculum, so anything that adds value to our pieces (for example history, science and geography) is important. We create bespoke teaching resources which give schools plenty of material to explore around the topics contained in our operas. Although there is history in lots of our pieces we tend to tell those stories in new and unusual ways.


        What do you make of the state of music education in general in the UK at the moment?

        Music education is in a state of crisis at the moment – there is very little provision, and in many schools music has been edged out in favour of core curriculum subjects. Budgets are much tighter too, in terms of headteachers’ ability to buy into projects. We charge schools nominal sums so that there is no financial barrier for the poorest or smallest schools.

        What are your main recommendations for opera houses and other classical music institutions that are a trying to reach out to younger listeners?

        I wouldn’t dream of teaching the other institutions how to do this – everyone has their own particular agenda and way of doing things. For us what is key is to work with artists at the top of their game, and to never, ever dumb down for younger audiences. They see through you immediately.

        The images in this feature were all created by children who took part in Bessie’s Wings, an ETO education production about the first black woman to gain a pilot's license. 

        The English Touring Opera reaches out to around 12,000 young people each year with its specially-commissioned children’s operas, placing an emphasis on creativity by giving students a hand in writing and performing the works. You can find out more about ETO’s education programmes here.