3 December 2009 at 5.59pm | Comment on this article
Schools' Matinees are ROH's longest running educational initiative, having been a regular feature since 1977. When I came to work here I was ambivalent about the idea. My experience of such occasions at a previous theatre company had not always been entirely positive and I was concerned about the idea of "ghetto" audiences. I'm now a total convert and our Schools' Matinee last week - of Tchaikovsky's opera The Tsarina's Slippers - illustrated the reasons why.
The atmosphere and sense of excitement around the Opera House and in the auditorium was fantastic, as was the way the students (77% of them of Primary School age) responded to the performance. I sensed that they loved the communal experience of being a young audience. They gasped and "oohed" at set changes, laughed at the sight gags, giggled and squirmed at the mushy moments, applauded bits of singing that they liked, cheered the spectacular moments of dancing, and clapped along to the music. And they screamed their appreciation at the curtain call (particularly for the hero and heroine, and the dancers) as if it was the X Factor final. Offices across ROH always turn on their tannoys at the end of Schools' Matinees; hearing the reaction can't fail to raise a smile.
The cast and orchestra love these performances too; they're special because the responses are so spontaneous and different to those you get in an evening show. You can sense clearly how it's going. If there are bits the audience think are dull (which can very occasionally happen in ballets and operas!), the fidgeting is palpable and highly audible. But actually, the level of concentration is amazingly high, and needs to be sustained for quite long periods, belying the widely held belief that kids can only concentrate in five minute chunks. Mind you, The Tsarina's Slippers had a lot going for it. The first half could feel a little slow at times but the second half went like the clappers. Spectacular set and costumes, an underwater scene, beautiful ballet sequences, spectacular Cossack dancing, rousing choruses, a dancing bear and a giant golden slipper that turned out to be a sledge to carry the boy and girl off to live happily ever after. What's not to love?
Newspaper reviews of the show have been mixed, with one critic warning: "please don't think of taking the children - they'll be bored rigid". As one teacher commented in an email I received yesterday, the students' reaction "utterly disproved" that.
Last word to Elizabeth from Wood End Junior School who wrote to us: "I thought it was amazing!!! It was the first opera I have seen and the best I have seen so far. If I had the opportunity to go again I would most definitely take it."