Over 280 local pupils set to take the stage for ‘The Glass Knight’

March 1, 2016

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The Glass Knight is a spectacular new opera based on the legend of the Saffron Walden basilisk, a monstrous serpent that attacked the town in the late middle ages. Produced in partnership with Saffron Hall and Saffron Walden County High School (SWCHS), this world premiere production is the biggest yet to be staged in Saffron Hall. A true community venture, The Glass Knight will involve 300 pupils and teachers drawn from SWCHS and seven local primary schools, alongside a cast of professionals including Essex-based composer and conductor Philip Sunderland, librettist Gareth Prior, directors Anna Moorhouse, Hannah Foy and Hazel Gould, and designer Neil Irish.

Exemplifying Saffron Hall’s pioneering learning and participation programme, the four public performances of The Glass Knight (9-12 March 2016) are the culmination of a year-long in-school project which has seen local teachers and students working closely with the composer, librettist, director and other industry experts to learn about the creative processes involved in staging a major opera production.

Onstage, the performing talents of 90 SWCHS students will be showcased in singing, chorus and dancing roles, including the lead role and 8 major solo roles. Alongside them will be two professional singers, soprano Monica McGhee and baritone Kieran Rayner, and a 20 piece orchestra made up of professionals, teachers and the school’s finest instrumentalists.

Also joining them on stage, split across two casts performing alternative nights, will be 186 year-six pupils from RA Butler Academy, Newport Primary School, Great Chesterford C of E Primary Academy, St Thomas More Catholic Primary School, Katherine Semar Junior School, St Mary’s C of E Primary School and Radwinter C of E Primary.

Backstage, the creative talents of more than 50 County High students drawn from arts and textiles subjects have been involved in set, costume and prop making, and other technical roles, providing first-hand experience of the demands of professional set design and stage management.

Based on the local legend, The Glass Knight is about a mysterious knight who saves the town from a terrible basilisk. In St Mary’s church four ghosts come together to recount the story of the Saffron Walden basilisk – famous for centuries but now almost forgotten. As each ghost tells a different version of the story, the audience gradually piece together what really happened: a tale of fear and bravery; of the basilisk that threatened medieval Saffron Walden, the unlikely heroes who stood up to it, and the mysterious glass stranger who saved the town.

Angela Dixon, Saffron Hall Chief Executive, comments:

“With the world premiere of The Glass Knight, Saffron Hall makes a clear statement of intent regarding the learning and participation programme, and its commitment to the community. More than any previous commission, this production, made possible by the strong partnership between Saffron Hall and Saffron Walden County High School, places students, teachers and local stories centre stage. The process of making and rehearsing this opera alongside professionals is as important as the four performances themselves and we hope that the experience will reverberate through the participating schools long afterwards.”

Philip Sunderland, Composer and Music Director, The Glass Knight, comments:

“It has been a privilege to write music for so many young people and then to be able to rehearse and direct the performances too. I am amazed by the creativity of all the young people I am working with. I fervently believe that being a part of this huge machine will be an experience that all the young people will remember for ever, because music is the most powerful and universal language, and through it, hundreds of young people can see how it enriches, enables and enlivens all our endeavours.”

Caroline Derbyshire, SWCHS Headteacher comments:

“The Glass Knight is an ambitious and imaginative project. It goes far beyond the scope of a standard school production, involving as it does a vast cast of children working alongside professional musicians, an original score, and fabulous set design. It is a modern piece in concept, but builds on a traditional local myth. It will inspire and amaze in equal measure. I can’t wait to see and hear it.”

Anna Moorhouse SWCHS Head of Drama and Director, The Glass Knight, comments:

My role as Director of The Glass Knight has been a different experience to a ‘normal’ school production in many ways. I have never directed an opera before, so it has been an exciting new challenge! I have really enjoyed working with professional opera-makers to discover more about the art form. It has been a wonderful experience for our students and one which they will remember forever – I love being a part of that’

Alan Broadbent SWCHS Head of Music comments:

“This project has provided another great opportunity for sixth formers in our Music Academy to play alongside professionals and be a part of this exciting and innovative production”

Jason Ions SWCHS Art Teacher comments:

Building the Basilisk from Neil Irish’s initial designs has been a great opportunity for year 9 students and they have all been taken by how much reinforcement the pieces have needed in order to survive the rehearsals and performances intact. This has been a fantastic project which will have a long term impact on this group of students and their involvement in art.

The Glass Knight has been made possible through the generous support of Arts Council England and PRS for Music Foundation.