What do chequebook journalism, East End Bengalis and London Guildhall have in common? Christopher Wood investigates.
The concrete jungle that is London's Barbican complex is well known as the home of the Royal Shakespeare Company - for the time being, at least - and the London Symphony Orchestra. Less famously, although perhaps of equal importance, it also houses the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, where the musicians, singers, composers, actors, stage managers - even the music therapists - of the future are being trained. Like the LSO, the students at Guildhall each year offer a programme of concerts. Next week sees the premiere of one of the school's most international offerings to date, the opera Going into Shadows .
The Australian-British collaboration involves students from the Queensland Conservatorium in Brisbane: Australian singers and instrumentalists are over for the London performances this month, while Guildhall students will reciprocate by taking part in performances in Brisbane in September.
Another antipodean element is the opera's composer, Andrew Schultz, who hails from Adelaide. Head of composition and music studies at the Guildhall, he has written Going into Shadows with his librettist (and sister) Julianne Schultz. Schultz, who has an extensive compositional career under his belt, is pleased that he had no need to compromise his idiom because he was writing for students. "I have written what I wanted to write," he says. "The quality of the students on the opera course is fantastic. The chorus already seems on a par with a professional chorus. I didn't see this as a student work, I saw it as a work that happened to be performed by students. They are relatively inexperienced, but they have great voices and a great deal of enthusiasm."
The plot of Going into Shadows combines terrorism, idealism, betrayal and the sometimes unhelpful role of the media, which is explored in the opera using live and pre-recorded video supplied by students from the National Film and Television School. One of the chief characters is the sinister journalist Jack Johns, who tempts a young woman into denouncing her terrorist fiance by promising a large sum of money.
Julianne Schultz, herself a journalist and academic, has had plenty of opportunity to observe the seamier side of journalism, as she outlines in a booklet prepared for the production. "With chequebooks waiting, contracts ready to sign, the lure of fame and fortune neatly wrapped in a package of the public's right to know, journalists descend on the unwitting victims of random acts of violence, fortune or survival. Having spent most of my professional life in the media, I am sympathetic to the professional values that Jack holds dear. But I, like an increasing number of my colleagues, recognise their limits and am dismayed by the costs. Would the story have been different if money did not change hands? Did the deception distort the story? The media's distortion of notions of belief and belonging is central to our times and an important sub-theme of this work."
The issues tackled in Going into Shadows form the basis of an educational package that the Guildhall and Queensland students will take into schools in their local communities, both around the Barbican and in Brisbane. Such initiatives are part of a programme that the Guildhall launched in 1994, titled the Guildhall Arts and Community Development Programme, that grew out of links the school has forged with local communities over the past 18 years.
The Guildhall's immediate neighbours are, of course, the well-to-do residents of Barbican pieds-à-terre and a daytime population of bankers and other City workers. But just a couple of miles east is the borough of Tower Hamlets, where the school has had a community base - in the crypt of Nicholas Hawksmoor's St George in the East church in Wapping - since 1989.
The programme is coordinated by Sean Gregory, who points out that there are benefits for the Guildhall students taking part, as much as for the local community. "The intention is to give the students an opportunity to explore their role as composers and performers in more diverse community settings," he says. "Not just to go out, play and then leave, but to do something longer term - to be involved in workshops. They might need to improvise, often working with people who are not specialist musicians, or they might have to play specialist instruments. They are going to need to be aware of a broader musical spectrum: non-western influences come into play."
Tower Hamlets, a relatively deprived borough with a large Bengali population, was an ideal location for such activity. "Tower Hamlets was attractive from the start because of its multiculturalism," Gregory says. "But also it is on our doorstep, and we were interested in building a relationship with our surrounding community."
Guildhall press releases plug the programme using the ubiquitous politicians' phrase "social inclusiveness", but for once the words seem to mean what they say. "When we go out to Tower Hamlets, whoever is in that room takes part," Gregory says. "They have a part to play, whatever their age, their ability or background - whether it is holding down a rhythm or coming up with an idea and performing it. The style and language of the music we try to use is not exclusive. We try to draw on a wide set of influences - high-art classical, drum and bass, European, electronic, acoustic - that enables everyone to feel part of it."
Looking further afield, the Guildhall has also established strong links with the Amani Ensemble - a group of musicians from Tanzania who have visited England several times to work on courses and have hosted groups of Guildhall students in Tanzania. As with the work among the Bengali community of Tower Hamlets, the key process Gregory identifies is cultural exchange.
"Future work we will be doing with the Tanzanians will look at diverse musical languages and approaches to music making," he says, "and how you can draw those influences together and hopefully celebrate traditions as well as new contemporary ideas. We'll be taking that experience when we go with Going into Shadows to Queensland."
Whatever its impact on the wider community, the most immediate effect of Going into Shadows will be on those students actually involved in staging the opera. One such is Barry Martin, from Trinidad, who ended up on Guildhall's opera course by chance when he came to London to earn money to study in Holland. Martin is one of several final-year opera studies students taking a lead role. With a job lined up at the English National Opera in the autumn, he is grateful for the experience of taking part in what will be his fourth Guildhall opera. "The rehearsal period mirrors exactly what you would experience on the outside, at an opera company," he says. "The directors are from outside, people who do productions with big opera companies, and sometimes the conductors also. We get the same type of treatment we would get if we were professional."
Sarah Redgwick, who recently won the Guildhall Gold Medal for singers, will sing the role of Jasmine, the daughter of Tarik the terrorist and his susceptible fiancee Bernadette, who after her mother's death in a car crash attempts to wreak a horrible revenge on her father. "In the past I've done a lot of comedy and innocent characters," she says, "so to have a scheming, bitter character to play is very different dramatically." Good training too for the demands of grand opera: Redgwick will sing Mimi in La Bohéme on a Scottish Opera tour this autumn.
Singing the role of Bernadette is Katarina Jovanovic, who left her native Serbia after the Nato bombing of Belgrade in 1999. "I had a choice between La Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera and Guildhall," she says. "I wanted something organised and well run, completely different from my own culture. Guildhall, people say, is the best opera course in the world right now."
Now near the end of her two-year stay, does Jovanovic agree with that assessment? No one from Guildhall's management is eavesdropping when she replies unhesitatingly: "Yes. I think it was an excellent choice to come here. Yes, I do agree."
Going into Shadows is at the Guildhall School Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2, on June 7, 9, 11, 13 at 7pm.