Chautauqua Opera adds youths to audience with kid-friendly performance

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Students watch and learn about opera through performances from opera singers at Children’s School on July 31.

At Chautauqua Opera Company’s third showing last month of its family-friendly “Alice and Alex in Operaland” at Smith Wilkes Hall, there was barely an empty seat in the audience.

Kids as young as 3 years old lined the first few rows. Many danced to the songs from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” and “The Jungle Book.” Some bobbed their heads to Brian James Myer’s pattered singing with Figaro. The rest covered their ears at the screeching highs in Rebekah Howell’s “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide.

Some may think: “Kids? Opera?”

Gordon Ostrowski, professor at the Manhattan School of Music, disagrees: “Opera is fun, opera is for everyone,” goes his mantra.

When he wrote the libretto to his “Alice and Alex in Operaland,” Ostrowski had a clear goal in mind: to get children interested in opera. An active outreach activist of more than two decades in New York City, Ostrowski knew that if he were to accomplish his goal, he would have to make his opera “engaging” and “relatable” to kids. He would also have to “resist making it too dramatic” — something difficult in the world of seductive gypsies and licentious dukes. The trick, he said, was to find a way to bring emotionally heavy works like Puccini’s La bohème and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro down to a level suitable for a 5- year-old.

And Ostrowski, whose “Operaland” ran for three shows this season, is not the only one at Chautauqua with these intentions.

Jay Lesenger, the artistic/general director of the opera company, has been a longtime proponent of introducing kids to the theater. With a strong belief that opera “needs to be brought to kids” if they’re to become interested, Lesenger garnered the help of the Opera Guild to carry out such a task. Nancy Seel and Alice Ward, the faces of the Guild’s outreach initiative, both brought opera to kids ages 3 to 16 throughout Chautauqua, attending the Children’s School, Boys’ and Girls’ Club and libraries throughout the county with a motto similar to Ostrowski’s.

Seel also decided that, if the younger generations of Chautauqua were to get interested in an art form more than 400 years old, they would have to understand it first. As a result, Seel created a one-week-long “Understanding Opera” class that covered the basics behind the music, the production and its history. For this season’s Madam Butterfly, Seel brought in baritone Michael Chioldi to sing an aria. She took her class to B.G FitzGerald’s costume shop to observe Cio-Cio-San’s dress being hemmed and admire Baby Doe’s blonde wigs with designer Martha Ruskai. With what was a “very worthwhile venture,” her students — the youngest a high school freshman — had learned a great deal about what goes into a production than the average opera goer, she said.

Seel hopes this lingers into a future opera viewing.

“Hopefully, the kids will go, ‘Oh, I saw this backstage, or I saw that,” she said. “Now that they know what happens [behind the scenes], they’ll want to tell their friends.”

What was Seel’s first season doing such a class in this highly hands-on manner, she said, was “well received.” One girl even wrote to Seel after the week ended, telling her opera teacher that “she has never taken such a wonderful course at Chautauqua” before.

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Pianist Miriam Charney talks to the children about opera.

Hearing such praise, Seel was enamored.

“It’s really great to hear that, because we really didn’t know a lot of things when we started this,” she said.

The same goes for Seel and Ward’s outreach at Children’s School, but telling stories to 4-year-old children, Ward said, is only so effective.

“They can only listen to you talk so long,” she said. “As much as we would like to think that what we’re saying [to them] registers, kids need something that they can identify with.”

And that is why, she said, there must be another element to an outreach education than librettos and fancy costumes.

It is “through song,” Ward said, “that is the easiest way to teach kids about opera.”

As a sort of capstone on the outreach this summer, pianist Miriam Charney, as well as Howell and Myer, two Studio Artists, performed a three-song set for the 3s, 4s and 5s at Children’s School.

In the same vein as Seel’s class, Charney began by introducing common opera terms and techniques in a manner that children could comprehend.

“Bravo!” meant “I love what you’re doing,” Charney said. Sopranos were “someone who sings really high,” baritones “singers that do it in low voices.”

Kids began to look around at each other, grinning when Howell tested out a high-A recitative, singing “what she had for breakfast that morning.”

When Howell filled room with Offenbach’s “Olympia” aria, girls’ eyes widened. Some boys covered their ears. Kids laughed when Howell’s “singing robot” character ran out of steam before Myer revved her back up.

At the end of the show, kids still had “their listening ears on.” Many were shouting “bravo” and “brava” along with their teachers. Most seemed to like hearing the new sounds, such as 4-year-old Eveline Guindon, who said that she liked the opera, especially the French “Olympia” song, because she “knows a little bit of [the language].”

Many others did not have the words to describe what they were hearing.

When asked what he thought about the opera, 5-year-old Michael Sammarco could only smile and shake his head.

“It was really loud,” he said.

Yet their teachers found the event to be a success, as represented by their kids’ stillness during the singing.

“It’s rare for the kids to be completely silent like that,” teacher Tomasina Lampard said. “They are used to having the story read to them, but I think that they like hearing the music.”

Kreable Young | Staff Photographer
Rebekah Howell and Brian James Myer perform.

School librarian Pie Kasbar agrees.

“They really have to hear the music,” she said. “You can’t talk to the 3s, or else they’ll just start rolling around on the floor.”

Brandon, 9, said that he and his friends liked “Alice and Alex in Operaland.” He expressed how impressed he was with Howell’s high-pitched performance of “Glitter and Be Gay.”

“I wonder if she could break glass,” he said. His friends wondered the same.

When one thinks of the progression of Ostrowski’s show, his “trick” is sort of revealed. Starting with familiar sounds that kids can identify with — Disney, barbershop quartet, Broadway — and progressing to the classic opera, he said, is a “hook” used to get young ears “accustomed to the unfamiliar sound.” Since many aged 3, 4, and up are hearing opera for the first time — many at “Operaland” — it’s necessary to play off a “relationship” that kids have already developed to the music of “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast.” Only through this gradual step to opera, Ostrowski said, can they win over a younger audience.

“Once you do that, then you have them in your hands,” he said. “You can take them on a journey.”

Although some may think that the grand themes of love, lost love and death in opera may be too much for a 5-year-old, Ostrowski and Seel both believe that kids have the capacity to understand on a basic level what is being communicated.

In the end, Ostrowski said, it’s the melodies in classical and opera music that he is aiming to introduce to a younger audience, a generation that will carry on the love for the music in the future. The life experiences embedded in the visceral emotion of opera music comes later on in one’s “journey.”

“It has to do with readiness,” Seel said. “When a child is ready to learn a certain thing, they will, as all kids have these different levels of readiness with these kinds of things.”

After the music ended that night at Smith Wilkes Hall, and Lesenger concluded his speech, the director invited the audience to come up and meet the singers. The kids sitting in the front row went from silent to not-so-silent, leaping up with fervent to talk to the members of “Operaland,” get their programs signed, meet the person behind the performance. One of the last audience members to leave was 8-year-old Julia, whose favorite song that night was “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” from the musical Mary Poppins. Julia said that she would like to get more involved with opera in the future. But pop music takes precedence in the meantime.

“I want to sing opera,” she said. “But first I want to be on the radio.”