Yesterday I did my last Opera Western Reserve Young Artists performance until mid-August. We performed at a summer arts camp in the neighboring county. Our normal “Fun With Opera” show is designed to last one class period in the normal school schedule. Because this was a day camp, the director requested a 90-minute performance, rather than 35-45 minutes.
Here’s what the show script looks like: There are usually three singers. First they introduce themselves and their voice type, vocalizing for 5 seconds to show what that voice type sounds like. Then they sit and the first singer talks about the elements of opera – how do you know what they’re singing (surtitles), what languages is opera written in and how can you tell what language it is if you don’t understand the words (primarily Italian, French, and German; fluid sounds – spaghetti, pizza, ciao; nasality – words from Disney cartoons with French characters; harshness – ich liebe dich); what other clues can you get as to what the opera is portraying (the music – minor = slow, sad; major = bright, happy). The first singer then sings two opera excerpts, usually 24 or 32 measures. They are in different languages and different moods. After each, the students are asked what language was sung and what mood was portrayed. Then they are asked to choose – by the loudest applause – which they liked better. I pull the chosen aria from my binder and set it aside.
Singer number two takes the stage and talks about the people at the opera. Who writes the music? Composer. Who writes the words? Librettist, and the singer talks about what a libretto is. The various directors are explained. The orchestra. The conductor. The chorus. The singers. Then singer number two performs his or her aria excerpts.
Singer number three talks about the parts of an opera. The overture; the recitative; the arias. What’s the word for when a singer sings alone? Aria. Two people? Duet Three people? … But are they always singing the same thing at the same time? No! They can be singing different words and expressing different feelings all at the same time. So now we’re going to give you an example. But first, we need you to decide what kind of character each of us will be: a chef, a dancer, a cowboy riding an ostrich on Mars, a sumo wrestler whose fingers are turning into Jell-O.
When we got to this part of the performance and Robert asked the students to assign a role to Dean, one boy held up his hand and called out, “you’re a mink who was abandoned by his cousin…in the desert.” I think that was the most elaborat role ever assigned. Robert was assigned a very athletic role, on a hot and humid day. By the end of four rounds of our chosen aria, he was dripping.
And what is the aria we choose to perform for these kids? Why, “Row, Row, Row Your Boat,” of course.
After that, we talk about the opera chorus, and have the students become the chorus. We divide them into three groups, tell one group to choose their favorite farm animal, another to choose their favorite animal at the zoo, and the third to choose their favorite …. You get the idea.
When that’s over and they’ve all settled down again, singer number three performs his or her two aria excerpts.
Except on this day, because we were trying to slow the clock down, each singer also performed an entire aria. Here was my Facebook post after that performance.
This is the end of the teaching portion of the performance. But then there’s the improvisation portion. We tell the students we’re going to create an original opera and it’s set at a bus stop (or in a car on a road trip, or in the doctor’s office …). They have to decide what each singer is doing at the bus stop. Who is he? Why is he there? I begin the overture, the singers race off stage and decide how the “libretto” is going to go. As the overture closes, they come on to the three chairs on stage that are the “bus stop.” We knock out some recitative, then the first singer says, “Let me tell you about it,” and I start into the introduction for the aria excerpt that was chosen after each singer sang in the first portion of the performance.
These singers—oh, my goodness. They are all so talented. Such beautiful voices. Such great rapport with the students. Great personalities, nice, dedicated kids. I’m old enough to be the grandma to most of them, and I love them as if they were my kids or my grandskids. Honestly? They keep me young.
Anyway, when the improvised opera concludes, they take their bows, acknowledge me, and then take questions from the kids. The kids can say anything, from “I went to the opera once,” or “I like to sing,” to “How long have you been singing?”
And then we pack up our props and equipment and go back to our real lives.
No moral to the story. I just thought you’d like a little insight into how we present opera as an art form to children of all ages.