Schoolboy Opera: An Extraordinary Experiment

Michael Volpe, now General Manager of Opera Holland Park, writes in his recent memoir, Noisy at the Wrong Times, about a production of Weber’s Der Freischütz that his state boarding school, Woolverstone Hall, put on in the 1970s. This was a mark of the school’s highly unusual degree of cultural ambition for its boys, which clearly had a deep and lasting effect on Volpe, but we might assume that it was a quirky one off.

Not so. Fifty years earlier another school was experimenting with ‘schoolboy opera’. A music teacher called Charles T. Smith from the Glengall Road L. C. C. Elementary School in Poplar, a working-class area of East London, put on a series of full-scale operas in the late 1910s and early 1920s. The entire school threw itself into the venture, the art department enthusiastically creating the sets, and a music teacher playing the piano. Smith’s sense of determination and enthusiasm in bringing off this unusual endeavour is palpable: ‘The prevailing spirit was, though the heavens fell, Faust was going to be done. And Faust was done’.

Girls and boys were involved in this first operatic experiment, which was followed soon after by a production of The Magic Flute with an all-male cast: Smith smiled when recalling the Queen of the Night whispering to Pamina in the wings, ‘Come on Bill, our turn next’. The opera was performed almost in full, with some small adjustments to the score so that it was suitable for the voices of twelve and thirteen year olds, but with all of Mozart’s harmonies preserved. Bill and his friend singing the Queen of the Night were both quarantined at home throughout the rehearsal period, as relatives were unwell, but both learnt their parts thoroughly in time for the dress, despite neither having a piano at home. And other practical difficulties were also overcome: the children simply carried on with the performance on a day on which the school heating had broken down (in January).


The production received a great deal of press attention. Smith had enlisted Edward J. Dent, soon to be Professor of Music at Cambridge, to give a pre-performance talk, and critics were in attendance from The Observer, The Telegraph, The Express and specialist music education journals. The response was overwhelmingly positive. Critics were astonished by the fact that the boys had memorised so much music and performed it with such psychological insight. The music might not have the sophistication of a performance at Covent Garden, but many of the critics felt that it had a vivid, energetic quality that was often lost in professional performances of Mozart, and the sort of humour that must have been envisaged by Schikaneder.

Some would argue that children have no business to be singing opera: that it harms their voices, that the subject matter isn’t appropriate, that the parading of child ‘stars’ is loathsome. There is some truth in this, particularly the first point, but the point of the performances was certainly not to treat the children like performing monkeys. This is exemplified by the fact that Smith was insistent about modifying the Queen of the Night’s coloratura passages, which could perhaps be taught to a cathedral chorister but not to a boy who had to spend his free time selling newspapers.

Smith argued that the teaching of grand opera to children was ‘thrice educative. It educates those who teach, those who are taught, and those who listen. It enlightens and gives pleasure to everyone concerned’. He was pursuing a rigorous, practical programme of music and drama at his school, in which he hoped these subjects would have benefits for the rest of the curriculum. Above all, he took serious music seriously and believed that children were perfectly capable of appreciating it on its own terms. One of the problems with operatic accessibility, both in the 1920s and indeed today, is that it was/is often depicted as something ‘apart’ from everyday life. But Smith’s aim was a very democratic one: that ‘operatic performances can be regular and ordinary events in ordinary elementary schools, attended by ordinary boys and girls’.

IMG_20150707_122138259 There is a sense of a real team effort here. The children had decided among themselves who would be most suitable to play each part, and Smith saw no reason to override their decisions. And if it was subsequently found that another boy was better suited to a role, the first surrendered the part willingly, taught the music to his successor and took on the role of understudy. The children evidently threw themselves into the process with great gusto. Smith argued that ‘They enter into their parts so intensely simply because they are happy’, and his descriptions of the individual personalities of the boys and their transformation as a result of taking on their roles is an absolute joy to read. Blithesome mirth had blossomed from beneath what were sometimes ‘cheerless, saddened exteriors’.

The critic of The Times expressed particular delight that the children were being given the real deal. He wrote: ‘Think of the well-intentioned cantatas for children, musical plays and operettas which have been turned out by the dozen; they are well written, well suited to the compass of the child’s voice, neat, tuneful, possessing every virtue save one. They do not last’. By contrast, he argued, ‘the man who has got the whole of a Mozart opera or the best part of it well into his bones before he left school is a very different person. He has got something which he cannot outgrow. He at least has the real thing as a personal possession if he chooses to use it, and that is all that an elementary education can do for any of us. There is unlimited scope for development in such educational efforts as this’.

The potential was there, but the idea never took off. There were practical reasons: Smith admitted that the time involved in rearranging the work for children’s voices had been considerable, and depended upon the ability and initiative of a really committed music teacher. Today, of course, children encounter very little opera, if any, in the curriculum and the idea of them putting on an opera as the end of term play is inconceivable. But there is so much to be admired in and learnt from Smith’s philosophy and his positive attitude. He wrote ‘Mount an opera and give it a chance. No one need say of a school that an opera cannot be performed owing to a lack of good singers or actors; it would not be true’. And in these utilitarian times, it is worth considering the Times critic’s idea that culture is a ‘personal possession’ that we give to our children: a source of lifelong ‘enlightenment’ (I use the word without embarrassment), of consolation when times are hard, or of plain old good fun. Above all, culture is one ‘possession’ that nobody can take away.