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Seven Habits of Highly Effective Outreach Artists
By Donata Cucinotta
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Original Content11/1/2010

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So, you’ve been hired to take part in a studio, outreach or ensemble program at an opera company. Chances are high that you’ll be asked to sing in schools as part of your duties. Here are some basic tips that can help ensure your outreach experience is rewarding and runs smoothly:
  1. Teeaaaaam OPERA!
    It is important to remember that you and your fellow artists are a team. Do not be the diva who disappears whenever it comes time to lift a set or talk to a teacher. Helping your fellow singers needs to be a priority. If everyone has this team mindset, all will benefit.

  2. You want us to put the set where?
    Your outreach production may involve a set. If so, work gloves are a good investment. When checking into a school, a secretary will usually tell you where to go. However, the secretary has most likely never loaded scenery into the building, so politely ask for the janitor. The janitor will know the easiest and safest place to load your set.

    I learned this lesson the hard way when we arrived at a school with a front entrance resembling a Mayan temple. Thinking that the front door was our only option, we started up the steps with pieces of our set. When the janitor happened to come by, he politely showed us a safer loading dock after he stopped laughing at us for even attempting to load in through the front door. Lesson learned.

    Space can be an issue when touring, performing everywhere from a cavernous convention center to a classroom. This is where you learn to be flexible. Late in my outreach experience, I learned that most schools have a contract with the local opera company that states the exact space required for the production. If a space looks too small, politely ask the administrator who led you there if the space is correct. If the school offers an alternative space, smile, thank them for their help, and gently remind them that, according to your contract, you and your colleagues require a certain amount of space for the safety of all involved. No one wants to trip over a kindergartener in the middle of the Carmen quintet. Putting spike tape around the perimeter of your “stage” can really help. Negotiating these situations can be tricky but it is important to do tactfully because…

  3. “You’ll play it the company way.”
    It is extremely important to be on time and remember that you represent the company — especially if you are in a smaller town. As a professional singer in a small town, you represent the company wherever you go — at the supermarket, in a restaurant, with a cocktail, etc.

  4. What do you mean I have to sing sick?
    The day-to-day of an outreach program can be grueling. Taking good care of yourself is of the utmost importance since you probably do not have an understudy. Should you come down with something, you may be surprised by what you can do. I’ve done some of my best singing while congested, something I never would have found out if I hadn’t sung outreach.

    Warming up at 7:30 a.m. is never fun, but just a little vocalizing can make a big difference. No, there is probably no warm up room at the school, and yes, everyone will probably hear you, but you do not want to get into a habit of just pushing through. Eventually, that bad habit will creep its way into your arias. If you take care to warm up and sing as well as you know how, outreach can be a great learning ground.

  5. Learn, Play, Grow
    There is no better place to play with your technique and take risks than an outreach production. Unlike any other performance, if you make a mistake, that cafetorium of kids probably will not notice. So experiment — perhaps in one show you think only about support or acting or singing with a cockney accent. See what happens! It will keep your performance fresh for your 137th Hansel and Gretel.

  6. Bugs Bunny was right.
    Singing for children is not the same as singing for adults because different things hold their attention. Keep this in mind if you are ever asked sing and aria for a group of school children. Sure, you may sing that Billy Budd aria brilliantly, but the “Largo” from Il barbiere di Siviglia will work much better. It is upbeat with flashy high notes and there is an opportunity to act more like a cartoon character that the kids know and love, while still being true to the character of the music. When you sing for kids you have to go just to the other side of the line.

  7. Q&A
    Young artist: Does anyone have any questions?
    Real response from first grader: My cat had kittens!

    Many students get nervous when it comes to public speaking and give a comment instead of asking a question. You can turn a comment from a child into a teachable moment. If a child says, “I like the costumes,” you can say, “Thank you! You know, there are many jobs in opera, one of which is called a costume designer. It is their job to think about the story and design and make these costumes just for our show.” The phrase “there are many jobs in opera” can help you in a lot of situations.

    Also, when talking to kids, short and simple wins. You may be able to give a dissertation on the history of opera but an outreach performance is not the place to do so. Instead this is the time to bait the hook and give just enough information to inspire the students (or adults for that matter) to dig further on their own. If you beat people over the head with too much information, you will only reinforce what they might already think about opera… that it is boring.

This is just the tip of the iceberg. I am sure you have friends who have been through outreach programs and are more than willing to share their experiences. So if the first step you take towards international stardom happens to be on a grade school gymnasium floor, consider yourself lucky. I guarantee you will have the best stories at cocktail parties next audition season.

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About the Author: Donata Cucinotta has sung mainstage roles and in outreach programs with Opera Colorado, Opera New Jersey, Amarillo Opera, Shreveport Opera, The New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players, Opera Company of Brooklyn, The Belleayre Music Festival and The Ohio Light Opera. Over the past two seasons, she made her Opera Colorado mainstage debut performing Berta in Il barbiere di Siviglia, and covering the Four Heroines in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. As a member of the Opera Colorado Ensemble, she performed the roles of Masha in The Music Shop, Juliette in Roméo et Juliette and Clorinda in Cinderella. Earlier this season, she made her debut as Gilda in Rigoletto at Opera Fort Collins. Upcoming engagements include the Mozart Mass in C and Bach Magnificat with the Denver Choralfest.
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