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Why Family Opera?… And how what we do Might Work for Your Company
Grethe Barrett Holby, Executive Artistic Director, Family Opera Initiative/Ardea Arts
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EducationLink10/20/2008

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I think the best way to begin is to tell a story.

I had fallen in love with opera. Late. By mistake. Because of Scott Joplin's Treemonisha. And because of Philip Glass and Robert Wilson's Einstein on the Beach. And then Marc Blitzstein's Regina. It took some time to venture in and love the classics. In the beginning, it was the excitement of recognition, or being delighted to sing along or of being stunned by a work that broke all expectations. But as I was drawn in, I found it was hard to bring my friends with me. People didn't want to come. What was wrong with this picture? Were the people wrong? Or was the art form not speaking to the people?

When I had children, I wanted to bring them to their first opera. Well, there is Amhal, but to tell you the truth, my children didn't love Amahl. Not like The Nutcracker or Peter and the Wolf. Amahl was not a celebration or an event. Why not?

I will venture to say something that might sound unpopular: Opera doesn't have a masterwork for families to experience together (as Nutcracker or Peter and the Wolf are for dance and for orchestra), an event to come to, an event to begin the operagoing ritual that will continue because everyone wants to come again and again and again — and come to together.

And so I began an initiative to bring together creative teams to try to make such works — not just for kids, but for the whole family and for friends and families without kids, too. Family to me means all ages, together: the very young, the young and the young at heart. And those who need to have their hearts rejuvenated.

I'm talking about operas that might be done out in parks, or in intimate theaters, or even on a basketball court (that's our sixth opera), as well as on your mainstage. It doesn't matter where — just terrific, fresh new work that breaks through old rules, without sacrificing what we love about the art form. Work that delivers a great time in the theater; that challenges, inspires, entertains and that captures something fundamental of our time.

As Family Opera Initiative (FOI) began to have some success, I became interested in bringing in another element. I had come to love opera because I was introduced to my pivotal works while performing in them or working on them. I asked myself, "How can we continue working at a high professional level, making the best work we can, but engage the public in a meaningful way?"

The first such piece was inspired by an image I love — Charles Ives having two orchestras playing the same piece together, then marching in different directions around a large park or square, and then keeping them playing when they reconvened, even though they weren't playing the piece together anymore. I asked composer Kitty Brazelton to write in parts for two nonprofessional groups from the community who would practice on their own and then join in the performance of the opera in a meaningful way, under the direction of the baton, with only one hour of rehearsal with the professional cast one hour before the performance. That piece became Fireworks, with story and libretto by Rent's Billy Aronson.

At the premiere by American Opera Projects in Fort Greene Park (Brooklyn, NY) this idea worked so successfully that for the next piece I wanted to go whole hog and use a sizable children's chorus as in The Nutcracker. George Plimpton was writing this libretto for us, and he was taken back — "Are you sure?!," he asked. But being a fearless adventurer, he created a rambunctious chorus of catcalls, interruptions, lists and songs. And for the composer, I added one more caveat — that the chorus could be sung by children from the community — without any professional training, working along side consummate professionals. And once again Brazelton obliged. This piece, Animal Tales, is our current project.

Not only is Animal Tales an unruly mainstage celebration harnessing the power of vernacular music, as was Magic Flute in its time, it has also provided the participating children an unforgettable opportunity. After their experience in Animal Tales, they will never shy away from opera. In fact, I venture to say that they will be opera's new champions.

Whatever our approach for a particular new work — our next will be an international project in four languages about communicating across cultural and language barriers — the Initiative is set: to use composers, writers and collaborators who normally would not be approached to write a "family" piece — artists who are often redefining their fields; to give the new work the same care and development process as one would a major piece; and test it, test it, test it. I have heard it said that it takes seven years to get a major musical up and running. It took 10 years for Ghosts of Versailles. How long for Spring Awakening or Rent? Eight. FOI's Flurry Tale, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Fireworks and Animal Tales have taken as long. These pieces have been workshopped, developed and tested, and they break out of the mold in an exciting way. Just look at some of the comments from our audiences:

     If that is opera, then I'll go!
     If my husband had been here and seen this, he would change his mind about opera and come
     with me.

     …That was cool.

Our logo says two things: "New Work. New Audiences." and "Explode all Expectations." I say, don't be afraid of fresh and vernacular music or new approaches. Just make damn good work that will last and become the new experience of our time — and part of the next generation's also.

Where are we now in our process? Fireworks and our holiday opera, Flurry Tale, are ready for licensing; Animal Tales is ready for a premiere; and our international project, based on a book by Umberto Eco and Eugenio Carmi, is ready for co-commissioners.

I hope you'll join us between November 11 and 16 in New York City for the industry readings of Animal Tales. Please contact us at info@familyoperainitiative.org or visit familyoperainitiative.com for more information.

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