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Youth and excellence in abundance at the Sage

First-rate opera made in the region. That's the prospect this week as Sir Thomas Allen directs Don Giovanni at The Sage Gateshead.

Sir Thomas Allen with the children from The Chantry Middle School

First-rate opera made in the region. That's the prospect this week as Sir Thomas Allen directs Don Giovanni at The Sage Gateshead. David Whetstone reports.

The Hexham-based charity The Samling Foundation "invests in youth and the pursuit of excellence", according to its website. There was plenty of both in evidence yesterday at The Sage Gateshead.

Pupils from The Chantry Middle School, Morpeth, were among 1,500 children from schools in the North-East and Cumbria who attended a special preview performance of Don Giovanni in advance of its public premiere tonight.

The production boasts a cast that would grace any opera house anywhere in the world and a director, Sir Thomas Allen, who has sung at the best of them in a long and illustrious career.

Mozart's Don Giovanni, one of the composer's many masterpieces, was first performed in Prague in 1787. Set in 17th Century Seville, the opera tells of a shameless womaniser, Don Giovanni (known elsewhere in literature as Don Juan), who kills the father of a girl he is pursuing and ultimately pays the price. It's a great story with great music packed into two acts - and the schoolchildren yesterday responded in time honoured fashion, yelling their encouragement to the performers.

The Samling Foundation was set up in 1996, offering masterclasses for some of the most promising singers and artists across the world. Many of these Samling scholars have since gone on to make glittering careers for themselves - and seven of them make up the bulk of the cast of this week's Sage performances.

One of them, Lisa Milne, who sings the part of Donna Elvira, recently finished a season at The Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Another, Leigh Woolf, who plays Zerlina, is married to the star of the show, Christopher Maltman, one of the country's leading young baritones who would appear to be following in the footsteps of his director. Seaham-born Sir Thomas is known as one of the best Don Giovannis Britain has ever produced.

In advance of yesterday's concert, Thomas Allen said: "We want as many young people who are keen on music and drama from across the region to come along and see Don Giovanni for themselves. Through this we are hoping to give them a fresh perspective on opera and dispel the myth that it's only for the few. Mozart certainly did not write for a coterie, he wrote for everyone.

"Also this production, like me, is born and bred in this region and we want to instil in them a feeling of pride. They will certainly witness something special. It's not every day you see a vital young cast, all of whom are performing their roles for the first time."

While the Samling Scholars - the others being Ronald Nairne, Kate Valentine, Adrian Ward, Marc Labonette and Benedict Nelson - have been learning from Thomas Allen, the schoolchildren yesterday were learning from them.

But the educational ripples from this high profile Samling Opera project did not end there. Forty teenagers from schools and colleges around the region have been working as a group since February, studying the story of Don Giovanni and using dance, music and drama to devise their own contemporary "take" on the opera.

Having had special access to Don Giovanni rehearsals, the youngsters will perform their own show to family and friends in Hall One of the Sage on Friday. It is called The Becky Allen Show and will be presented as an Oprah Winfrey-style exploration of the kind of relationship problems endured by Don Giovanni's lovers. For 15-year-old Chloe Francis from Oxclose Community School, Washington, the project has been life changing.

"It has been a totally new and uplifting opportunity and has strengthened my ambition to be a performer of some kind," she said. "We've been given the freedom as a group to examine the story behind Don Giovanni in our own way but with the guidance of some brilliant professionals, including a rap artist, which was awesome.

"We've worked really hard as a team, exploring the opera through improvisation, composition, creative writing and performance to produce our own modern version of the tale."

The Samling Opera Don Giovanni follows Mozart's Così fan tutte which Sir Thomas Allen directed at The Sage Gateshead two years ago. It is the second of the Mozart operas by librettist Lorenzo da Ponte and it is Sir Thomas's ambition to direct the third, The Marriage of Figaro, for Samling Opera to complete the set.

For opera fans across the region, Don Giovanni is not to be missed. But even though it will be sung in Italian (with an English translation running simultaneously), it also promises to be a gripping introduction for people who haven't been to an opera before. Accompaniment will be provided by the Northern Sinfonia and the Northern Sinfonia Chorus, conducted by Thomas Zehetmair.

Various other organisations sponsor Samling Foundation enterprises and Don Giovanni has been sponsored by The Gillian Dickinson Trust.

There are performances tonight and also on Thursday and Saturday. Tickets (from £7 to £28) from the box office on (0191) 443-4661 or online via www.thesagegateshead.org. You can find out more about The Samling Foundation on www.samlingfoundation.org

Reader offer

BUY a ticket to see Mozart's Don Giovanni starring Christopher Maltman and directed by Sir Thomas Allen at The Sage Gateshead - and get the second half price!

We've teamed up with Samling Opera to give Journal readers this great opportunity to purchase any priced ticket on Thursday, June 7 and receive the second for half price for its stunning new production of Don Giovanni.

Featuring an outstanding young cast of international singers, including Lisa Milne as Donna Elvira, with Northern Sinfonia Chorus and Northern Sinfonia conducted by Thomas Zehetmair, this promises to be one of the year's operatic highlights.

Tickets cost from only £7 and Journal readers can claim their discounted tickets by simply calling (0191) 443- 4661 and quoting Journal Reader Offer. This offer is subject to availability and is only valid for tickets in the same price band. Tickets: A £28; B £23; C £19; D £13; E £7.

The performances take place in Hall One at The Sage Gateshead at 7pm.

Journalists

David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
Newcastle United Editor
Stuart Rayner
Sports Writer