Young Artists program introduces opera to Routt County students
March 9, 2018
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — If you've ever wondered if it "hurts" to sing opera music, so did Routt County elementary school students who were treated this week to a production of "Cinderella," as performed by professional Opera Colorado singers.
It shouldn't hurt if done properly, answered Nathan Ward, the singer who played the "fairy godfather" in the hour-long version of the fairytale with a number of twists and turns away from the original classic.
Ward emphasized the years of training and education each of the seven featured Young Artists had gone through in order to be able to sing long and loud.
Hailing from Texas and North Dakota to Florida and Vermont, the Young Artists, most with master's degrees, gave five operatic performances for students across Routt County this week.
The performance Wednesday morning at Strawberry Park Elementary was the first for the school, part of Opera Steamboat's education outreach programming. For many of the students, it was the first time they'd been exposed to the genre.
Expanding by two locations from last's year inaugural program, the Young Artists also performed at the Boys and Girls Club in Steamboat Springs, Hayden High School, Steamboat Middle School and Soroco High School. In Oak Creek, the programming was expanded to include all grade levels — beginning with the preschoolers.
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"It's a comedy. It's OK for you to laugh," Cherity Koepke, Opera Colorado's director of education and community engagement, explained to a group of close to 200 Strawberry Park third-, fourth- and fifth-graders as they sat cross-legged on the gymnasium floor.
Eyes widened as the kids absorbed the high-drama, suspenseful performance with funny and relatable elements of for girls and boys.
They giggled at the feuding stepsisters and bounced and wiggled to the fast-paced pounding keys of the piano accompaniment.
One boy in the front row conducted the music with his arms, while another boy in the back tried out his own vocal range, genuinely trying to be as quiet as one can while testing opera tones.
"It's fun to watch the kids' reactions," said Beth Blaskovich, director of administration and development for Opera Steamboat. The environment is intimate and immersive, and far less formal than a traditional opera setting, she noted. While adults can be much more reserved and attentive to etiquette, the kids don't have the same learned filters, and express themselves — very vocally at times."
As the Strawberry Park show drew to a close, the kids gasped with delight — and some horror — at the kiss between Cinderella and the prince before erupting into enthusiastic applause.
During the brief question-and-answer session after the show, the students asked how long the singers had to practice and if the piano player's hands hurt. The impressive "one-man orchestra" told the kids that it normally shouldn't hurt but acknowledged that because opera is loud, he has to be even louder for the singers to hear him.
Koepke pointed out there were no microphones, and that opera singers are trained to project their voices.
Cladera said the opportunity for kids to see live performers and gain exposure to a different type of music is a key part of Opera Steamboat's music education mission. It is a rare opportunity, particularly in more rural parts of Colorado, Caldera said, to have performances brought to kids where they are — in their own schools.
After last year's performances, Blaskovich said the response from the schools was overwhelmingly positive and unanimous in wanting to see the program continue.
At Steamboat Middle School, Principal Heidi Chapman-Hoy said her staff and students were looking forward to their show on Friday after their experience last year.
"For some, it might be a one and only exposure to the opera. For others, it might inspire them in a new way," Chapman-Hoy said. "Middle school is an awesome age to expose students to new and exciting experiences and opportunities."
In advance, teachers are given a study and activity guide designed to introduce the students to the basics of opera and to the storyline — another element of the program Chapman-Hoy called insightful and appreciated.
Funded by Opera Steamboat largely through private donations and grants, the performances at the schools are given on a "pay-what-you-can" basis, Blaskovich said. "We never turn away a school," she said.
As they grow their education program, the Opera Steamboat offerings are also expanding, said Blaskovich, with an effort to provide more year-round programs in addition to the primary summer season.
Speaking from his own experience growing up in Uruguay, "Art can have an incredible impact on a kid's life," Cladera said, not only in terms of education and inspiration, but it may "change how they feel about their future."
The chance to interact so closely with not just the singers, but the whole production, "really can change kids' appreciation and understanding of the art form," he said.