In what was then rural North Carolina, a theater troupe visited my father’s fourth grade. In that time and place, seeing live theater performance was rare, but he loved it. He went on to work in theater himself as an actor, director, and set builder. Though he’s no longer in the business, his appreciation of theater continues to this day, and he credits that troupe as an early inspiration.
In August, I was hired to work for a similar troupe during this semester. Arizona Opera’s Operatunity troupe is a program where four singers (Soprano, Mezzo, Tenor, Baritone) and a collaborative pianist are sent out to perform at local schools. By local, I mean southern Arizona as a whole: in what I now consider terrifically fun team-building exercises, we would all climb in the van and drive (often for hours) to small communities for one or two shows.
Our target audience was elementary aged children, though we sometimes performed for slightly younger or older students. We introduced opera concepts and repertoire, and the schools were often those in communities without easy access to the arts.
Their reaction? In general, they didn’t just like us; they went nuts for us. Dori’s first notes in “Quando men vo” would illicit some squirming, but by the end we won them over. At some schools we were treated like rock stars and were asked for autographs and encores. The kids would even sometimes announce their intention to become opera singers themselves.
“Category one: Know Your Opera Voices…”
The material was structured as a game show entitled Who Wants to Be an Opera Star? I was the show host, and the other singers were contestants answering questions, accumulating points and performing. At key points, we would teach the students simple melodies and rhythms.
These selections were chosen for kids, and – rest assured – no sopranos died in the course of a show. Instead, we wore silly costumes and played with simple props. The choreography was energetic and comic, and all the ensembles were sung in English translation.
Nevertheless: we performed real rep. Selections were drawn from such operas as The Magic Flute, The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro, and The Daughter of the Regiment.
Was it Rigged?
It was rehearsed, but believe it or not, I would have no idea who would win a given show. Honest. There were enough wild cards (including my capriciousness in point giving – mwaa ha ha) that it would change every time.
Wild cards included singers competing to sustain a note for the longest time. We would also adjust our selections depending on our audience. And sometimes the singers would just steal lines to get extra points for themselves.
The kids followed the contestants’ status closely, and they would even form teams supporting different singers. For example, in Safford clear “Team: Mitch”, “Team: Dori”, and “Team: Jovahnna” cliques developed, and they would cheer or gasp in fearful anticipation as points were awarded.
At the end of it all, I’d crown a victor as “our next opera star” and then we’d do a Q and A with the kids. Often, and adorably, the kids would instinctively raise their hands without having a question. Sometimes, they would just give one of us a compliment. For example, there was this gem from a first grader:
“Even though she didn’t win, I think Dori did really good.”
At which point we all melted into puddles of “awwwww”.
Most often, their questions were along the lines of “How do you do that?” or some variation thereof. That was hard to answer. We would awkwardly mention breath support, resonance, years of practice and all that kind of stuff. Describing Rouzbeh’s 22 years of piano practice was an easy way to elicit a reaction, but so was revealing Jovahnna’s only been training for five years.
But the students’ tone while asking made me suspect that they weren’t seeking an explanation. Instead they were expressing themselves in a question.
At our Morning Blend appearance we were asked why opera should be sent to schools. I answered about multiculturalism, which is fine, but here’s a better answer:
Because opera is amazing.
There’s a reason that opera – born in Florence, Italy around 1597 – has survived for over 400 years. Each generation shapes this art so that only the fundamentals tie our present operas to the earliest. But those fundamentals can still prompt the question – “How do you do that?” – when opera grabs us for the first time.
How does a human being make sounds like that? How can a person write such amazing music? Could I do that too?
Hopefully, this line of questioning leads to the conclusion: If you can do it, then so can I.
Kids get there more quickly than adults, which is why troupes such as ours are so valuable. Whether they actually pursue this craft themselves is ultimately irrelevant, though I always encouraged them if they showed interest. Instead, the goal is to remind them that they can do exciting things with their lives, and opera is one terrific option. But so long as they energetically pursue their own creativity in any way at all, then they still enrich the world.
These kids want exciting and fun lives for themselves. How do I know this? First clue: when I would announce the title of the show, without fail they would take it as a question and raise their hands.
“Who wants to be an opera star?”
All photographs by Mark Voss. Used with permission from Arizona Opera.
This was a wonderful experience. Thank you, Lori, Ken, JB, Lin, Randy, Peg, Linda, Rouzbeh, Dori, Mitch, and Jovahnna. Thanks to all the teachers and principals who were so supportive and who work with these kids every day. And thanks, Dennis, for that Facebook post!