Thursday, November 22, 2007

Recruiting Little Children

As part of the professional opera community's ongoing efforts to develop young audiences, many companies have made it possible for schoolchildren to attend student matinees. Others have toured stripped-down versions of popular operas like Carmen, La Traviata, The Daughter of the Regiment and The Marriage of Figaro. However, while employed as OPERA America's project director for the Opera For the Eighties and Beyond program, Ben Krywosz identified a major problem among opera professionals.

"Although the primary music of America nowadays is rock'n roll, the operatic establishment does not speak the language of most people in America. As a result, there's something which is not quite connecting on a core level. That 'something' has to do with a different cultural point of view. Many adults working in this art form can't understand why kids who are doing drugs and fighting with each other aren't connecting to a children's opera like David King & Kerry Hailstone's Goldilocks and the Three Bears when it's performed as part of their opera company's educational outreach program. That's because, when you let the kids write their own music theater pieces, they create works about teenage suicide, incest, child abuse and the things which are a part of their daily lives. Although the kids really want to deal with such issues, most adults find that material very threatening."

Because their reactions have not yet been wholly conditioned by the "dos and don'ts" of adult society, children have an uncanny capacity to embrace current events and merge them with their hyperactive imaginations. Most importantly, kids seem determined to address important issues which their parents keep trying to ignore. When Carroll Rinehart first attempted to have schoolchildren create their own operas, he discovered that the kindergarten tots in a Tucson, Arizona school wanted to deal with the issue of poverty (their lead character was a woman who steals because she needs the money to buy food for her children). Students Rinehart worked with in Ashland, Oregon created an extremely poignant work about nuclear holocaust.

To date, the schoolchildren experimenting with OPERA America's "Adventures In Music and Words: The Opera Experience" have proposed operas about divorce, public apathy, reverse discrimination and the children's march out of Poland. Youngsters working with the Lake George Opera recently created a music theater piece entitled "Imelda and Her 10,000 Shoes."

One of the most stunning pieces to emerge from schoolchildren's minds was developed when the Mobile Opera and 1,500 students attending the Palmer Pillings Middle School joined forces to create a new work as part of Rinehart's "Kids Creating Opera" program. Once the school's student government had identified the subject matter (the role of women in the 1980s), music students wrote the score, literature students wrote the libretto and business students constructed the program notes.

What was The Life and Times of Gloria Matthews like when the opera received its world premiere in January 1989? The protagonist of the piece was a young black woman who became an alcoholic when she could no longer cope with the stress of balancing her family duties with her professional life. The opera contained a stunning duet for a husband and wife and, after Gloria's attempt to commit suicide by shooting herself was interrupted by a friend, the final scene showed the heroine standing up at an AA meeting and announcing that she was an alcoholic.

Although children are eager to deal with such provocative and mature issues, adults who are in a constant state of denial cannot. "Mozart was involved in the contemporary folk music of his age, so being a part of your culture is nothing new," argues composer Stewart Wallace. "The problem is that, for the most part, opera in America has been treated as a museum dedicated to presenting things of 'high culture.' Because this art form has been seen as a way of justifying America's existence to the aristocracy, there has been no change in its cultural matrix."

After many years of expecting stronger returns from educational programs which offered students drastically modified versions of great works from the operatic literature, it seems as if opera's professionals have finally acknowledged the fact that the product they've been offering students may not always have been suited to their audience. Today's kids couldn't give a shit about Shakespeare and Beethoven. The only thing that will hook them into opera is the thrill of experiencing music theater with a new and heightened intensity.

That's why exciting new directions are being taken by opera outreach programs whose goals are to educate and cultivate young audiences. Texas Opera Theater recently announced that it will cease touring traditional repertoire so that it can concentrate its efforts on producing new works of greater relevancy to young audiences in the metropolitan Houston area. In February, Opera Iowa (the touring educational arm of the Des Moines Metro Opera) will present the world premiere of a new one-act children's opera written by Stephen Paulus with a libretto by Michael Dennis Brown. What made the co-founder of the Minnesota Composers Forum (who is best-known for his symphonies, choral compositions and operatic treatment of The Postman Always Rings Twice) want to compose an opera in which grade-school children do battle with dinosaurs?

Paulus is the proud father of two young children.

Why is the San Francisco Opera Guild embarking on a major new outreach program which utilizes OPERA America's "Adventures In Music and Words: The Opera Experience" as a means of introducing schoolchildren to opera? In the hope that, by doing so, the operatic art form can have some relevance to the multiplicity of cultures which populate San Francisco's schools. Perhaps that's as it should be for, when stripped of its pretensions, opera is simply a heightened and more intensified form of music theatre.

Nothing more, nothing less.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on July 5, 1990.

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