It had been 8 years since my first visit to Jackdaws, when I was fortunate to be musical assistant to Audrey Hyland on their production of La Cenerentola. I remember that Easter production so fondly. It was filled with wacky costumes, school workshops, lots of good food, great company and excellent music making. I remember also that it came at a point in my life when things weren’t so great on a personal level, and it was like a balm/reset for the soul. That project culminated in joyous performances in the Cheese and Grain, which were mad, but brilliant!
For those of you who have been to Jackdaws, you’ll know that the venue is in a beautiful corner of a village near Frome, by a river and surrounded by trees and wildlife. It is a calm, inspiring, inclusive and welcoming place to make music.
Since my first visit, I have followed Jackdaws with great affection, and have been incredibly happy to see so many wonderful projects taking place. When Saffron invited me to be a part of their virtual schools workshops, I was utterly thrilled that the dates worked and that I could be a part of the education team again. Audrey wasn’t able to MD the actual project, so I was asked to be the pianist and assistant MD for the workshops.
OperaPLUS put together a series of workshops called Roller Coast-Opera in place of the originally planned Barber of Seville. COVID restrictions meant that we weren’t able to actually travel into the schools, but Saffron and her team had an amazing alternative plan!
Like most of my colleagues, I have been working on Zoom a LOT this past year, usually 1:1 vocal coaching sessions, and running my dementia choir, but this was the first time that I had been able to Zoom with 5 other colleagues in the same room.
Myself and 5 singers were set up in the newly built studio with a beautiful Steinway all with individual microphones, different coloured t shirts and our own safe spot to perform from.
The five singers – Lorena Paz Nieto, Saffron Van Zwanenberg, John Porter, Owain Browne, and Malachy Frame had travelled from several different places, but all had a link to Jackdaws from previous projects. It was the first time that we had all worked as a group though.
We had a day of rehearsals, sound checks, tweaking the script, a dress rehearsal and getting to know each other before we began the week of Zooming in to 9 schools over the week. Our man ‘on the ground’ was the amazing Josh Bishop, who did all the travelling to get to the schools in time to set up their equipment, have a rehearsal and to make sure that everything ran smoothly between the schools and us at Jackdaws.
Most of the schools were able to join in with singing by that point, although a couple were still taking precautions and hadn’t been given the green light to be able to sing just yet. But the workshops allowed for lots of participation both dramatically, physically and vocally so there were many options for joining in safely regardless of individual school restrictions.
Roller Coast-Opera began with the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro before taking the young people into the world of opera with an aria from each singer. The use of big emoji cards was brilliant as it allowed the children to pick which emotion they felt each aria (which were sung in their original languages) portrayed.
The second half of the workshop was making an opera with the help of the schools, which included the Toreador chorus, a chorus from Cosi, and their very own version of The William Tell overture, to the words, “I can sing, I can sing I can sing, sing, sing”. ( Or “I can dance” for the non-singing schools!)
An extra final goodbye song at the end was The Wellerman song, with words cleverly rewritten by Saffron. This song is currently a big TikTok hit so was recognised by all!
As a team, we particularly enjoyed the Q&A section at the end, when we had some incredibly thoughtful and insightful (and challenging!) questions asked of us – “ Where did Opera originate, and how/why?”, “How do you sing high, John?” (Our tenor). And Lorena’s personal favourite was “What do you need to become an opera singer?” As she quite rightly said afterwards, “it’s like a sudden lightbulb appears, and the child asking realises that music/singing/theatre are potential career options for them”.
Returning to Jackdaws was a really wonderful experience for me. It was obviously quite different this time round compared to my visit 8 years previously, but there were many blessings Zooming in from the studio in the beautiful garden there. As we didn’t have to travel between the schools, there was plenty of time for football, chatting, discussing this past year from a freelance point of view, eating delicious home cooked food prepared every day for us by Alex (thank you, Alex!), practice and for jamming through arias and operas in our spare time.
The workshops themselves seemed to work really well and despite us not being there in person with the schools, the sessions allowed for an hour of interactive learning, fun and also to hear and see some incredibly high quality singing from the fantastically talented team.
The schools themselves were so helpful and brilliant at the organisation, which definitely made our lives easier too.
For many of the professional singers leading the workshop, that was the first group singing with a live piano that they had done since early 2020, so it was also a real pleasure and privilege for us all to be able to make some music together in a safe setting. Working again with colleagues was a joy and I think that I can speak for all of us when I say that we were also incredibly grateful the work.
It was also an honour to be able to be a part of such a versatile and fun team, and to continue Audrey’s amazing work.
As ever, Jackdaws works so hard to create opportunities for both professional musicians, and to inspire and involve young people across Somerset.
It’s a very special place.