Regular readers of this blog might know that I’m a keen singer and I firmly believe in the positive power of joining your voice with others and experiencing the sheer joy of making music together. So when Cambridge Youth Opera came up on my social media with details of its new programme “Making Magic”, I was intrigued and met with Founder and Artistic Director Caroline Coetzee to find out more.
Caroline’s story begins in Johannesburg where she grew up in a family steeped in the arts, so music was always all around her. At secondary school, she realised that people saw the arts as something for others, not as a part of everyday life, and this fuelled her enduring belief that the arts belong to everyone, whether they are professionally involved or not. Opera became a particular passion for Caroline and after studying Theatre Studies and Music, she worked in opera before life eventually brought her to Cambridge.
Caroline’s then teenage daughter and her friends loved to sing but there was little opportunity for young people to experience live opera here in East Anglia. So in 2011, Caroline decided to plug that gap. With rehearsal space provided by Chesterton Community College and the support of Cambridgeshire Music and John Lewis, Caroline put on “Dido and Aeneas”. A production of “The Magic Flute” at Cambridge Junction followed in 2013 and the work continued, with subsequent productions of “Amahl and the Night Visitors”, “Brundibar”, Offenbach’s “Daphnis and Chloe”, Britten’s “The Little Sweep” and the European premiere of “The Hiding Tree” by Edward Barnes.
Cambridge Youth Opera works with young people aged 11-21 years and participation in all activities is completely free. There’s open access for singers and members of the production team who work on stage management, lighting, costume, choreography and set design and building. Singers are guaranteed a place in the Chorus and only need to audition for solo roles. A chamber orchestra of older teenagers is auditioned. “Often it’s the musicians’ first experience of orchestral playing in an opera context,” Caroline explains. “They’re working with a conductor and supporting singers, so it’s a different skill.”
“There’s a perception that opera is exclusive, expensive and elitist,” she continues. Caroline and her team blow that perception out of the water as they work in a collaborative process with their young company. “We’re not trying to make them sound like opera singers; we work together to achieve the best possible performance appropriate to their age and stage of development.” She’s supported by Alastair Chilvers (Musical Director) and Julia Caddick (Vocal Coach), whose aim is to give singers a solid technique whilst developing their voices in a way that’s right for them. Company members find that their talents, interests and ambitions are fostered and their confidence builds too. For some, it has led to a career in the arts.
Cambridge Youth Opera is now running the “Making Magic” programme, a series of nine workshops based on operas with magic themes, which will culminate in a performance in March 2019 at Storey’s Field Centre. The workshops, with music learning, acting exercises, improvisation and games, will build a core company, many of whom will want to continue on to the full production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel”. Rehearsals for that start in September this year for performance in 2020.
Cambridge Youth Opera has for some years been a charity and Caroline is constantly working to raise core funding. She’s now also seeking funding for the “Making Magic” workshop programme and for “Hansel and Gretel”. And her hope is that primary school children will be able to attend the production so that the next generation is introduced to opera. If you’d like to donate, to sponsor this work or to have a longer term involvement with Cambridge Youth Opera, Caroline will be happy to hear from you.
For more information on “Making Magic” and “Hansel and Gretel”, take a look at the website, through which you can also make a donation or contact Caroline directly.