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Opera Songs of Discovery project leads to moving performance by ESOL students at Westminster

An innovative five-year partnership between the English National Opera (ENO) and New City College has led to a moving performance by ESOL learners at the London Coliseum.

Working with the college since 2018, ENO’s professional artists have delivered intensive 6-week singing and songwriting workshops each year at NCC’s London campuses, bringing the magic of opera and performance into the classroom and making it more inclusive.

This year the project was called Songs of Discovery. The workshops, held in college and taught in English, helped with language acquisition as well as promoting self-expression and building confidence. Some ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) students who took part arrived in the UK with no knowledge of English. Many are looked after children from refugee backgrounds who have experienced trauma in their early lives, so for them to have learned songs and performed in an opera is a huge achievement.

As part of the project, each student was also taken on a tour of the London Coliseum and was given the opportunity to watch the ENO rehearsing the Opera Akhnaten, based on the life of an Egyptian pharaoh.

The Songs of Discovery project culminated in a final fantastic performance on 17 March at the Coliseum in front of an audience of friends, family, staff and other students.

Using props such as a shell, a ship, a candle, binoculars and a megaphone, the students created intriguing storylines and wrote original songs alongside ENO’s professional singers Hazel Gould and Aga Serugo-Lugo.

One of the students who took part said: “It has helped me to learn because in my country they don’t understand opera, but in this country I have learnt about opera and singing.”

Ruth Lomax, New City College Group Executive Director for Communications and Student Support, attended the performance and said: “The show was superb. These young people have suffered upheaval and challenge in their young lives, and to see them embracing modern English opera with such positivity and enthusiasm in such a magnificent venue was deeply moving.”

Principal of NCC Tower Hamlets and Hackney campuses, Alison Arnaud, told the audience on the night: “This room is full of people with stories and the difficult journeys they have made. Despite a discouraging past, these students have overcome their difficulties and continue to thrive in education.

“We have such a rich diversity of language and cultures between us and the power of ESOL brings us together, to share and learn each others’ languages, and through those verbal cues to build the connections and the futures that we need.

“Where words fail, music speaks – and it has spoken today, loud and clear! The power of ESOL has meant that 200 young people from some of the most deprived and complex areas of East London have been exposed to the magic of opera.

“I cannot put into words the value we place on the relationship between New City College and the ENO. Their gift to our staff and students is inestimable.”

Jennie Turner, NCC Group Curriculum Director for ESOL, said: “The long term relationship between the ENO and NCC has led to our learners knowing they can go to the opera and be welcome. It has improved their language skills, their confidence and their wider career aspirations. They have learned a lot about British values and life in the UK at its best. This relationship has developed over a number of years and it has enriched our curriculum and our learners’ lives.”

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