I Am Festival: Creating a sensory opera experience with ENO

Molly Bertrand shares insights from developing an accessible opera workshop for her PMLD students

15 June 2022

We were absolutely thrilled to have been matched with English National Opera (ENO) for a workshop as part of this year’s I Am Festival. Since becoming Lead Teacher for Creative Learning at Watergate School just before the pandemic, I have always dreamed of an opera singer blasting out arias in our playground. Perhaps my dream was about to come true! Opera is the ultimate multi-sensory experience and if we could capture some of that essence and share it with our pupils it could be truly magical.

At the planning stages, I was a little anxious as ENO has not taken workshops to schools like ours before. The lovely education folk outlined the kind of education workshops they usually offer, and I listened intently to their suggestions and tried to imagine how they would work with our pupils.

My hope had been that we could offer the workshops to our pupils with Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (PMLD) and those with the most complex needs. I knew it was possible and so I boldly made some suggestions about how they might adapt things to our setting. I talked to them about intensive interaction, about making things multi-sensory, and about creating immersive environments. I told them that our pupils would need lots of time, lots of sensitivity and lots of fun. I told them that our pupils like to have the opportunity for controlled mischief and they can cope with, and actively enjoy, what I like to describe as ‘mild peril’.

ENO were very good listeners. They reflected, reviewed, and revised their plans, and I was extremely pleased when I saw the draft session outline as it was everything I hoped it would be. An empty space was to be transformed into an enchanted forest within which the children would hear the story of Hansel and Gretel told through song, dance, sensory props, and music. Ooh, this was more like it! The sessions would be facilitated by a workshop leader supported by two opera singers and a pianist. A professional designer would work with the I Am Festival Cultural Ambassadors (a group of eight disabled young adults currently on a work placement programme with A New Direction, supported by AFK) to create an immersive forest environment. ENO were really taking this seriously and I was impressed by their commitment to creating a wonderful experience for our pupils.

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Cultural Ambassador working on their immersive forest environment – credit Ross Bolwell-Williams

The day of the workshops came and we had back-to-back sessions all day. The room looked amazing – chock-full with forest foliage and filled to the brim with giant mushrooms, massive ice cream cones, and tempting lollipops. Children peered in, wondering what was about to take place.

As pupils arrived in the space, music was playing and they were greeted by the performers. Various woodland creatures were introduced to the children as they were given time to look around and acclimatise to the environment. Staff were as excited as the children, taking in the simple ways that a bare classroom had been transformed – glitter curtains, inflatables, balloons, lighting.

The performers and musician garnered lots of praise from staff for the way they interacted with the children. The pianist didn’t bat an eyelid when a child joined him at the piano. The singers seemed to instinctively know when a child could cope with being sung to close up and when they might need to back away. The workshop leader could sense when to encourage more and when to move on to a new activity. They had understood that, more important than the design, more important than the story, more important than the music, were the interactions between themselves and the pupils. This is where the magic happens. It is so important that we don’t play at children, we play with them.

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Pupils working with ENO performers – credit Watergate School

Wonderful engagement from our pupils occurred throughout the day – a severely visually impaired boy edging closer and closer to the singers; a girl smiling at hearing her vocalisations sung back to her; a boy beside himself with joy at seeing the singers again when they ‘popped up’ in the dinner hall; a child dancing freely and happily in the space. The day was full of these moments of delight and wonder. Watergate School were delighted to have been part of it and we hope that ENO continue to develop their work so ALL young people get the opportunity to experience opera whoever and wherever they are.

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