Opera for free
I first came across Cambridge Youth Opera (CYO) in 2015, when my daughter’s singing teacher suggested she join. Despite her initial cynicism of opera, she had a successful audition for a solo role, and three years later she is still with CYO and we are both fans. CYO provide free, open access to high quality opera activities for children and young people from the Cambridge area. CYO is run by a dedicated team of volunteers and trustees, and employs outstanding professional coaches to put on wonderfully professional productions. I meet with Caroline Coetzee, the founder and artistic director, to find out what makes CYO so special.
In 2010, Caroline was looking for something that would enable her to work in opera and support the community. Caroline recalls: “I have loved opera my whole life and am passionate about opening the arts up to young people. Opera is great for this because it encompasses all the arts, but it’s seen as expensive and exclusive. I wanted young people to understand that opera doesn’t have to be like that. My daughter was a singer, but while we could always get singing lessons, there was little to help her and her friends understand what opera was really all about.”
The power to excite, move & amuse
Caroline comes from a family of artists: her mother was a concert pianist and father a writer. Caroline studied singing, musicology and theatre, then worked in opera in South Africa, Germany and the UK. Reflecting on her childhood, Caroline explains: “The arts were a normal part of daily life in our house. Something people just did. It wasn’t until I went to secondary school before I realized that for most of my friends this wasn’t the case. For most of them the arts were something ‘out there’ or for other people. That has always seemed wrong to me. It isn’t that everybody should have a career in the arts; but everybody should have the opportunity to experience the arts and make them part of themselves.”
This is one of the key motivations behind CYO. “The provision of arts education in the UK is patchy and becoming more so. The arts should be a natural part of daily life, but I think there’s a danger of it becoming something exclusive to those with money, or with a background in it. Unfortunately, there’s still a vast group of young people in the UK who honestly don’t see the arts for them. That is why it was so important for me to make CYO affordable and inclusive in getting across its power to excite, move and amuse.”
Caroline is passionate about using CYO to bring opera to young people and new audiences. “CYO is for everyone. Because most of our participants won’t have experienced opera before they come to us, we don’t audition our chorus and our production activities are open to everybody.
“A key part of CYO’s success is that it’s not just about singing. Young people get involved in costume and set design and making, stage management and lighting, as well as singing and playing in the orchestra. Consequently these opportunities help young people develop confidence and independence”.
A suitable production
Finding operas suitable for young voices is a challenge. Caroline sought the help of Julia Caddick, Roger Bond and Yvonne Williamson for CYOs first production in 2011, Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Dido got funding Cambridgeshire Music and John Lewis and was a great success. Young people provided everything from the orchestra to the set and costume design. Caroline remembers, “The two stage managers ran the show completely on their own; they were 13 years old. That set the bar for everything that came afterwards!”
CYO have since performed The Magic Flute, Amahl and the Night Visitors (twice), Brundibár, and Daphnis and Chloe; they are now working on a new double bill of Benjamin Britten’s The Little Sweep and the European première of Edward Barnes’ The Hiding Tree.
The team select works that don’t put a strain on young voices, and where necessary, Caroline translates and adapts the opera so their productions are interesting and relevant. For example, Daphnis and Chloe performed in 2016, was set on Grantchester Meadows. From the start Caroline has had an ambition to do something new: “To commission a new opera and work with an artistic partner on a piece written specifically for CYO would be incredible.”
Free activities & superior coaching
CYO has ambitious plans, but providing free activities is central to their ethos. “To ensure CYO’s long-term future and to become sustainable we gained charitable status in 2016. We have a fantastic board of trustees who oversee our activities. Parent volunteers and others interested in what we do carry out our administration and management.”
The key to CYO’s success is the quality of the coaching. Caroline says, “Anne Taylor, our musical coach, ensures that every aspect of the music is of the highest quality. Julia Caddick, our vocal coach, does amazing work, developing young voices to sing with an appropriate and healthy sound. Alastair Chilvers, our musical director gets everything to sound unique, energized and professional. I take care of all aspects of staging and elements of dramatic performance and I’m responsible for the overarching concepts of the shows.”
When needed they bring in other coaches. “In our new show The Hiding Tree, choreographer Julia Pond is working on her second production with CYO; training the amazing Monster. Seven singers will perform The Monster and we’re excited to have a professional costume maker on board.”
“Quality is vital to us,” says Caroline. “We have been invited to perform professionally with the English Touring Opera on two occasions; this is tribute to the exceptionally high standards we’ve created.”
Funding & partnering
“Fundraising is a huge part of what we do. As a result we apply for grants, look for individual and in-kind donations and put on fund raising events. We especially want to secure corporate sponsorship for CYO and develop a longer-term relationship with anyone interested in supporting us as a sustainable organization.”
Building strong partnerships with schools and colleges in Cambridge is important to CYO. “Our most important one is with Chesterton Community College, our home and rehearsal venue” says Caroline. “In return, their students have unique opportunities to get involved with our activities and contribute to the artistic life of the College.” CYO is also a partner with Cambridgeshire Music and contributes to their opera strategy.
“We’re always on the look out for new partners and would love to hear from anybody who would like to get involved.”
Future plans – the dream
CYO has ambitious plans for the future. “We’d like to start with primary school children. Particularly in areas where access to the arts is difficult” says Caroline. To introduce young children to the basic principles of opera in a fun and practical way CYO is exploring a programme of primary school workshops called Stories in Song.
Down the line, CYO hopes to develop workshops for young singers; to provide them with the skills and experience to get onto competitive opera courses. “We’d love to provide an end to end solution. With open activities for primary school children and teenagers, to more advanced courses for young adult singers at the very start of their careers. That’s the dream!” says Caroline.
The next CYO production is a new double bill of Benjamin Britten’s The Little Sweep and the European première of Edward Barnes’ The Hiding Tree to be performed on the 26th – 28th March.
Photo Credit: faruk.kara.org.uk / (https://www.instagram.com/faruk.kara.photography/)
Caroline was interviewed by Dawn Giesler, founder of scuseme, a recommendation website developed to provide an essential resource to help your family run smoothly. Dawn has lived in Cambridge for over 20 years and offers advice based on her own experiences. For more information please visit scuseme