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Haensel Und Gretel 1822 Michelides

Opera in (and after) school

My first opera experience was The Magic Flute at Portland Opera. I was a freshman in high school at the time, and a friend of mine was in the children’s chorus. She’d been cast as one of the three spirits and was very excited for her first solo role. She encouraged me to come watch. In retrospect, it was a pretty lackluster production of The Magic Flute (though of course my friend was great), but it didn’t matter. I was in love. Something about how the music, drama, and spectacle came together touched me. Twelve years and 189 operas later, my passion is still strong.

I was lucky to find my love relatively young. Many of my operatically inclined friends didn’t discover the genre until much later. Either they’d never been to an opera, or their first experience was too soon and didn’t click. (I hear a lot of half-remembered accounts of family presentations in English, or, at the other extreme, overly long operas in foreign languages before they could read fast enough to keep pace with the supertitles.) But I still feel like I lost time I might have spent enjoying opera. And I didn’t perform in my first opera until graduate school!

Today, I experienced the joy of some very lucky children who are creating opera in elementary and middle school. I went to the finale performance of Little Opera. Little Opera offers after school programs where K-8 students make an opera. They write the story, craft the libretto, compose the music, plan the staging and choreography, and perform. Teaching artists help them along the way. (There are many similar programs around the country. Here in San Francisco, both San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Opera Guild also run educational programs where students create operas.) The results are silly, a bit nonsensical, and lots of fun. These are operas that were clearly imagined by children, with the occasional tongue-in-cheek canonical classical music reference slipped in by the teaching artist compiling the score.

Hänsel und Gretel, Staatsoper Wien 2015. Photo: Christian Michelides. (Not children performing opera, but the closest I could get, as I don’t yet have permission to use Little Opera’s photos.)

On the program today were three short works. The 2nd/3rd-graders collaborated on “Videogame Doom,” in which the heroine was tricked into a virtual world by a cat who wanted to escape it. After some (frankly a bit confusing) misadventures, and with the help of an adorable pair of cat detectives, they all made it back into the real world by harnessing the power of love. The 4th/5th-grade class presented “The Enchanted Forest.” Lost children helped fairies locate a magic stone and heal the damage a storm had inflicted on the forest. The middle schoolers forwent fantasy in favor of realism in “Sweet, Sour, and Suffering.” Three families of mothers and daughters dealt with struggles. The baker Georgette and her shopaholic daughter Cynthia got a happy ending, where Cynthia realized the financial damage she was inflicting and sold her clothes on eBay to help her mom make rent. Another teen, Maya, finally allowed her friends to help ease her burden as caregiver for her mother. But two sisters (Priscilla and Beatrice) had so many problems with their controlling mom that they moved out and stopped speaking to her. That narrative dominated, so the last words of the opera were “a terrible mother.” It’s particularly ironic that this performance took place on Mothers’ Day (an irony noted with an extra supertitle at the end of the show: “HAPPY MOTHERS’ DAY!”).

There were flashes of real talent apparent. The cleverest songs had a Sondheim vibe, with unusual rhythms and unexpected rhymes. At least two of the older girls have great musical theater belts in the making, and one of the 4th/5th-grade boys already shows promise as a classical singer.

It all left me impressed and a little envious.

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