Last week I had the most uplifting theatrical experience of the year – so far. I saw Swan Lake at Royal Opera House in the company of 2000 primary school children. Of course, the show was terrific. Beautiful dancing, grandiloquent sets and large orchestra playing what is probably the best ballet score ever written.
The reactions of the young audience were fascinating. No one had told them when they’re supposed to clap and I suspect that for many this was a first experience of live theatre. So the applause was spontaneous and triggered by sheer delight rather than by convention or expectation. There was an audible gasp when those iconic red velvet curtains began to part at the beginning. They whooped and cheered when they first saw the fabulous sets for Acts 2 and 3. The applauded enthusiastically whenever anyone on stage did anything spectacular too. There was a special needs group in the box opposite me and one of the staff was “dancing” one of the children during most of the energetic Act 3 set pieces and, by golly, was that child enjoying her trip to the opera.
Interestingly most children were quiet for most of the time they were meant to be – rapt and engaged, I think. And conductor Valery Ovyanikov is very good at waiting until applause stops even if it’s at an unexpected moment before bringing the orchestra in again. I was pleased too to see so many children coming down to look into the orchestra pit and speak to players, during the two intervals.
This was one of ROH’s school’s matinees. They run about six per year, charging a nominal amount for each ticket, Schools come – red pullovers, blue sweatshirts, green hats, high vis jackets and all the rest of it – from all over the country. Before the show they picnic in ROH’s open spaces such as the Hamlyn Hall while a quartet of musicians play highlights from Swan Lake and dancers (students from somewhere?) in costume move among the crowds being swanlike.
What a splendid initiative. I wish everyone I’ve ever heard dismissing ballet and opera as elitist had been there to see it.