Photo: Michael Schultz

One wouldn’t think Opera to be popular with the youth, more attuned to bombastic pop music than centuries’ old arias.

Prima Volta Charitable Trust is on a mission to challenge opera’s stuffy, high culture reputation and make it accessible to all. And it’s working.

Thanks to their charitable programmes, over the last nine years legions of youth from diverse backgrounds across the Bay have been trained to produce professional quality operatic and choral offerings, performed to the delight of eager audiences of their peers and the general public via Festival Opera

Prima Volta means first time, and Project Prima Volta are incredibly thoughtful and attuned to the way they introduce opera to youth. A poor cultural experience, one which is read as boring or arduous, can be more detrimental to one’s lasting impression of culture than no exposure at all. Rather than throwing these first time potential opera enthusiasts into the deep end of a full production, they’ve developed novel ways to plant the seed in these young minds, eyes and ears.

Be the Main Character at Peterhead school

‘Be the Main Character’ is a schools’ show, developed by Festival Opera via the Arts Festival. Part of their outreach series, #operaclass, it is held at the Blythe and delivered in schools themselves, completely free thanks to well deserved funding. Financial barriers to access addressed, the company tackles cultural barriers with their method of devising. 

The plot and music are excerpts from their next big production, The Magic Flute, delivered in full next February during Art Deco. Rather than overwhelm their young audience with songs sung in German, showy costumes and props, director John Wilkie provides a simple yet engaging format designed to draw children in. 

There’s no ‘fourth wall’ at all. From the start, the tamariki are part of the show, called on to respond. In fact there’s no singing for quite some time, and when it does come the kids are involved, instructed to e tū and slay a serpent, made from enthusiastic junior PPV members, with a combination of their voices and the ‘power symbol’ each has been provided with on entry. 

Costumes are slightly silly and all the purvey of the dress up box, simple things that most kids have at home. Songs are shortened and translated to English so they might be understood. All of this primes the audience so that when they attend the full opera next year the plot is familiar, the music recognisable, and a positive connection has already been made.

All of these elements deliver a clear message – these tamariki are powerful and the stage and the opera is a place they could see themselves. The cast is made up of audience peers, intermediate age kids, clearly having fun, and PPV alumni who have been through the programme themselves as tamariki. 

This tuakana-teina mentorship is a key element of Prima Volta – beginner singers receive support, counsel and aspirational example from established group members. Working together to create the bigger productions is a positive uplifting experience that for many is life changing. 

It’s all based on a South American model, El Sistema, that uses music for social inclusion. Prima Volta consciously invites tamariki and rangatahi from lower decile schools, ones who might previously never believed opera was for them. It’s played out in the diverse racial spectrum on stage and in the audience. 

As well as preparing the audience for consuming opera, ‘Be the Main Character’ is about encouraging tamariki to try out. The weekly Project Prima Volta programme trains members for the stage, with the potential to earn NCEA credits for participation. The junior programme runs for years 6-9 while year 9-13 students can audition for the senior programme. 

‘Be the Main Character’ is not Festival Opera’s only offering this Arts Festival. In a busy week, they are performing a full orchestral and choral show, We Will Rise Again, Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony, this Friday at Waiapu Cathedral, in conjunction with Hawke’s Bay Orchestra and a hundred voices, comprised of Hastings Choral Society, Napier Civic Choir, Iona, Hastings Boys, Taradale High and the Prima Volta team.

Then on Sunday a selection of prima singers pay homage to the career of Dame Malvina Major on the Toitoi stage in Sharing the Dream. Opera is thriving thanks to the efforts of Project Prima Volta, and thankfully it’s something that everyone can enjoy.


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