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Puccini Plus Participation Equals Passion
Paula Winans, Director of Education, Lyric Opera of Kansas City
Original Content9/29/2009

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"Floria Tosca has done all good things, but bad things happen to her. She asks, why does God reward her like this?" — Francesca, 9 years old

It is opening night of Puccini's Tosca. I meet 11-year-old Deon in the theater lobby, and he and I are very pleased to bump into each other. When I ask him what he thinks of the opera so far, he says, "Vissi d'arte was beautiful." I tell him that I agree. Both of us cannot wait for Act III to begin.

At the Sunday matinee, I happen to sit behind five-year-old Vivian. I ask her if she is enjoying the opera and she says, "I think Tosca is a very nice person." I ask Vivian if she would like Tosca's picture and I hand her a color photo from the newspaper of Lisa Daltirus, our Tosca, in her beautiful Act II costume. Vivian excitedly shows it to her mother. Later, when the Act III curtain calls occur, Vivian jumps out of her seat into the aisle and applauds the singers by clapping her hands high above her head.

Sixteen-year-old Emma, a Lyric Opera high school honors artist and veteran opera camper, writes in her Tosca review, "At the beginning of Act III, the shepherd boy's pure voice pierces through the orchestra. It is a strange aria: ‘Io de sospiri,' but it can be assumed that its poetry foreshadows the events yet to come as the act progresses. The last line in the aria, ‘Lampena d'oro me fai morir' (Lamp of gold, you make me die) is a representation of Tosca's leap for death as the sun rises."

At the opening night party, I sit with one of our Tosca artists' agent and he tells me that he has never been to an opera house where there are so many young people in the audience. He is impressed with something that Lyric Opera of Kansas City has come to appreciate as a given. Yet, it is not something that we can ever take for granted.

Seventeen years ago, Lyric Opera of Kansas City offered its first summer opera camp. The two-week camp is open to youth ages 10 through 18, but if a parent calls and discusses a child's musical interests and ability to focus, children as young as five years old can attend and participate.

On the first day of camp, the young people fill out a survey to show what they know about opera. Most first-time campers have neither seen nor sung in an opera and cannot answer the questions. We tell them that they do not need to worry if they can't answer the questions because, by the end of our first day, they will be able to show a lot more knowledge. We also have the campers take a "drop the needle" listening test. We play three excerpts of well-known arias and ask them to name the work, the composer, the language being sung, the character's name and what the character is singing about. Most of first-timers leave their paper totally blank. However, approximately 50 percent of the campers are returning from previous summers; they pass the test with flying colors, even though the test is different each year.

Opera camp began at Lyric Opera of Kansas City because, as an educator, I was frustrated by not being able to present opera, in-depth, to young people. Although visiting schools for a short amount of time is gratifying, and it is possible to help students become interested in and intrigued by opera during a short visit, I believe that learning can be so much more full and rich. Two weeks of daily study helps young people learn to love opera, and to be inspired to research, sing and share it with others.

Lyric Opera of Kansas City's summer opera camp centers on one of the season's main stage productions. Each day, the children "act out" the libretto, word for word, in front of the group, then watch themselves on a professional video production. For our Tosca study, the young singers learned to sing (and translate) the children's chorus sections, including the Te deum, and the shepherd boy's solo. They also learned to use the International Phonetic Alphabet. Vissi d'arte was the aria they studied most and, as a result, loved the most.

During camp, our makeup and wig artist, Jan Delovage, gave a fabulous demonstration, and two young campers were transformed into the diva, Floria Tosca, and the wounded Cavaradossi. The younger children were relieved to know that while the tenor is crying out "Ahime! " offstage, he really is not being tortured, but is having his makeup applied and changing his shirt to a "bloody" one. Allison, a 10-year-old, still was discussing this fact with her grandfather seven weeks after camp ended. The campers also were treated to a two-hour stage combat class with a fight choreographer.

A highlight of the camp: the young singers had the opportunity to work with Robert Gibby Brand, who will sing the role of Sir Joseph Porter in our November production of H.M.S. Pinafore. The campers got to practice "When I Was a Lad" and then sing it with him during our final camp performance. They learned standard Gilbert and Sullivan staging to accompany the song from our stage director, Linda Ade Brand. That very evening, our high school campers started a Robert Gibby Brand fan club on Facebook.

Our high-school campers receive an extra hour of opera study each day and become quite good friends. They studied Don Giovanni and performed the duet "Là ci darem la mano" on the last day of camp. Also, all students shared their solo vocal talents during one afternoon of the high school class. Twelve of them were invited to be Lyric Opera high school honors artists and receive voice lessons and master classes during the 2009-2010 school year.

In addition to a choral recital on the last day of camp, the young singers also performed a family opera and sang with professionals. The opera in this case was Cinderella and it will tour at elementary schools in the coming school year. Cinderella also will be performed at reStart, a homeless shelter near the Lyric Theatre. Each year, we do a residency at reStart, and the reStart community of families attends two of our main stage operas. Five opera camp scholarships are awarded to reStart children each summer. All of our young participants will reunite to perform Cinderella at reStart, as well as at the women's correctional facility in Topeka, Kansas, and at the local public library.

Sixteen young singers from opera camp were asked to perform in the children's chorus of Tosca. Of their family and friends, 165 tickets were purchased for the Tosca performances. Yet, even more than knowing that our young people are encouraging others to attend the opera, I believe that knowing our campers are becoming intelligent performers and articulate audience members is most significant. We measure their learning, help them to perform on our stage, greet them in the theater at our performances and we communicate with them and their families regularly.

On the last day of camp, we do a second survey and another listening test. The display of knowledge makes the opera teachers ecstatic. We know we have done our job when we see them in our theater demonstrating their excitement; it does not get much better than this. As those of us in the opera profession know, once we become ignited by opera, it can become our whole life. Young people need something about which to be passionate — it keeps them focused, vibrant and connected to others.

In conclusion, the campers say it best:

"Do I like opera? Yes — it's beautiful, expressive and can help inform how we live our lives." — Gale, 18 years old

"If I could change one thing about opera camp, I would make it four weeks." — Riley, 9 years old