Cafegymatoriums with loud heaters, kids covering their ears when the soprano sings a high note, crazy set-up scenarios, and daily travel to a different venue: This is a typical day in the life of an opera singer involved in educational outreach.
Not in Chicago.
Chicago Opera Theater’s “Opera for All” program takes outreach to a completely different level. This 30 week program not only brings opera to young people in Chicago Public Elementary schools and centers, but gives them the tools and resources to develop their very own opera. Students learn about the different aspects that go in to creating an opera, including vocal technique, composition, poetry writing, directing, dancing, as well as creating costumes, props, and sets.
Students, classroom teachers, teaching artists, lyricists, composers, choreographers, and designers all come together in this unbelievable outreach program. Led by Linden Christ, the Manager of Education and Outreach, Chicago Opera Theater’s “Opera for All” program pairs teaching artists with schools throughout Chicago. Every week teaching artists and students meet to work on a different aspect of putting together an opera. Students brainstorm their plot after a Chicago Opera Theater sponsored field trip. Then students are led through poetry sessions with a lyricist to create what will eventually become their class songs. After many brainstorming sessions, the student’s ideas for their stories are sent to a librettist who writes the script for the student’s opera. Later in the year, each class works with a composer who helps them write a melody set to their poems. Each class meets with a choreographer who teaches them a dance to a popular song, which has been incorporated into their plot. Students create set pieces, like this year’s super nova space backdrop, alien antennae, space dogs, and even a birchwood rocket ship. The kids even have a day of auditioning for the roles they helped create. Throughout the 30 weeks, the students become an integral part of all development.
Choreographer and Teaching Artist Amanda Compton working with the students of Marzanna’s Postolowicz’s 2nd Grade Class @ Reilly Elementary School
Throughout the year, students learn about opera and theater through games and singing. They start each day by warming up their bodies and voices. A unique aspect to the “Opera for All” program is that the teaching artists from Chicago Opera Theater create a team with the student’s actual classroom teachers. Aside from planning together, the teachers have roles in the student’s operas, participate in acting exercises, and serve as extra sets of eyes and ears during (what the kids call) “opera time.”
I have been working for Chicago Opera Theater as a teaching artist since January. Every day, I am amazed at the excitement and enthusiasm these kids bring to their own work of art. A year ago, the word “opera” may have just meant loud or obnoxious singing to many of these students. Now, it’s something that they have participated in and can explain to their families and friends. I love when we walk in to the school and see a student’s face light up as they exclaim “Oh! It’s opera day!” A couple weeks ago we had a classroom create a flash-mob in the lunchroom to their choreographed song “Starships” by Nicki Minaj (the Kidz Bop version.) They were so excited, exclaiming “are we really going to do this?!” When they got up to dance, they kept backing up in to the CD player causing it to skip but they just kept going! I was so impressed. It was like working with a group of little professionals! Their performance wasn’t the best they could have done, but they dealt with the blows and owned it.
Since opera encompasses so many aspects of art, every student can shine in their own way. At the beginning of the year, I noticed a student not wanting to participate. As we started dance week, we noticed… he could really move! We made him dance captain and ever since then, his interest has increased exponentially. We learned from his classroom teacher that he suffers from severe ADHD and that this class allowed him to overcome that challenge through singing, acting, and dancing. In another class, a really shy student wasn’t singing out when the class was in the process of composing their song. The next week we had the kids draw a picture in their “opera journals” on what they thought their characters should look like. Her image was created so thoughtfully: an alien in a costume that resembled a large slice of pizza! Later, her alien picture that she created for the t-shirt contest was so scary, I had to put it in the back of my folder!
We are coming to the end of the school year and the end of an “Opera for All” season. The two schools that I work with, Reilly Elementary and Chase Elementary, will give their final performances soon. I am elated at how much the students have learned. In their opening song, the student’s voices and combined energy soars through the rafters. During their dances they are laughing and executing the moves with attitude. They are showing thoughtfulness in their dialogue and have developed layers to their characters. When they walk on stage with their props, you can sense the pride in their work. They are artists. They have earned their bows. I can’t wait for the performances and I know the excitement of their loved ones being in the audience will inspire their efforts.
Currently, there is an online campaign to help fund “Opera for All” on funderhut.com. I hope you will take some extra time to watch the video, be inspired yourself, and donate to this cause.