A harlot’s life … for kids

A harlot’s life … for kids


norman lebrecht

October 12, 2013

British composer Iain Bell, whose Hogarth opera premieres next week in Vienna, has been hurling himself into education programmes. Read on…


harlot kids


Months ago I agreed to take part in a series of workshops where Viennese college students would learn about A Harlot’s Progress, the behind-the-scenes reality of mounting an opera and a little about my life as a composer. I must stress that before agreeing to do so, I pressed the organisers to ensure the ‘children’ were of appropriate age to discuss syphilis induced insanity, rape and such like. Once I was assured that there was no such problem, I happily put the dates in my diary then largely forgot about it until a couple of days ago when I was contacted to confirm my participation.

I started to become a little nervous. Although by this point I had done my fair share of press and tv interviews, a room full of sixteen to eighteen year olds began to make me feel a little anxious. Rather than worry as I had previously done that they were too young to be dealing with the issues raised by the piece, I was now concerned as to whether they would be too old to care all that much.

Fortunately, I was given home advantage. I had assumed I would be heading out to their school, ghetto blaster under my arm, but learned the event would take place in one of the opera house’s ‘spaces’ often used for pre-performance talks and the like. To be somewhere familiar was a relief. What’s more, I realised the workshop would actually be taken by our rehearsal pianist Raphael Schluesselberg along with the theatre’s head of outreach. The pressure was now off as I was made aware I would be more of a guest of honour, there to answer a question or two. I now began to look forward to it….

One thing that did make me smile was the fact the organisers discreetly ‘warned’ me that the students weren’t from the best area, nor were they music specialists. I quickly reassured all concerned that having gone to secondary school in Slough, I was more than equipped to deal with this; it actually made me even more excited!

So I arrived ten minutes in advance of  show-time and headed down to the venue in the bowels of the theatre and chatted through the planned proceedings with the organisers. Then the kids came in. I was expecting a room of small-boned adolescents in school uniforms (as in UK) but was faced with a room of adults, most of the guys had stubble and were over 6 foot tall and the ‘girls’ were trendily turned out young women. Things have changed since Slough!

After a brief intro from Raphael, they were invited to ask questions. I was delighted that they ranged from studious (inspiration for the piece etc.,) to very cheeky and familiar  which suited me perfectly and meant the atmosphere very quickly warmed.

Choral excerpts from the opera were played through and taught to the group to which they were all really responsive. A percussionist and double bass player from the orchestra played some jazz and demonstrated their instruments including a whip(!) and anvil from the Bridewell Prison scene which aroused a great deal of curiosity indeed!

I was really happy with how it went but nothing could have prepared me for their response after it officially ended. They flocked to me wanting photos taken, asking me if I was on Facebook, Twitter etc. It was so touching to know they were revved up by the workshop and I will be sure to do these again and again whenever possible.


  • Karoline Baumer says:

    I love the report! Thanks Iain for taking the time to share your thoughts of the event.