The Elixir of Wonder

Yesterday I spent the morning discussing future strategies and scenarios in higher education. What struck me was that over the course of three hours the words education, teaching, and learning were never used.

In the evening I was a guest at the opening night of the Royal Northern College of Music’s production of Donizetti’s opera ‘The Elixir of Love’ to be sung in Italian and featuring – in the cast and orchestra – students from right across the undergraduate and post-graduate provision.

I have to admit that opera generally – and particularly early 19th century Italian comic opera – does not feature on my list of favourite ‘must see’ genres. In fact it’s probably well along the ‘must avoid’ end of the continuum. However, I’d been invited by colleagues I like and respect, and there was a pre-show dinner at the RNCM’s excellent restaurant.

There was a full house, so the building was humming. There’s something great about that pre-show foyer buzz as people arrive, meet, greet, drink, chat, etc. As Richard Schechner pointed out many years ago, the trouble with too many shows is that what happens in the foyer, bars and social spaces before, at the interval, and after a show is all too frequently the most interesting phenomena of the evening.

We took our seats as the orchestra tuned up. Again there’s that wonderful expectancy as the various instruments tune in to that plaintive A on the oboe.

Then it was curtain up and straight into what, from the start to the finish, was a hugely enjoyable, visually seductive and witty, brilliantly performed and played production. 24 hours later, as I write this, I am still smiling because of it.

However this is not a review of the production. But rather, thinking back to my rather dry and ‘education-free’ meeting – about higher education – in the morning, a reflection on how our much disparaged and ‘useless’ disciplines of dance, drama and music in education (all present in this production) provide opportunities for students and also staff to engage in the creation of truly wonderful work. This is something that too many of those who are in control of our education systems, with their obsessions with protocols and standardisation and compliance and conformity and league tables and graduate employability and sustainability and an infinite host of other -isations and -ilities, just don’t get!

I’ve written before how our obsession with the somewhat triumphalist notion of ‘excellence’ has blinded us to that which is so obvious about genuine, transformative education: it’s not excellence we should be pursuing…it is wonder-full education.

The RNCM show provided that Elixir of Wonder.