Opera Ed 101
When you are hired to sing at an opera company, singing your best is certainly a priority, but not your only consideration. In this volume of Voices, our series highlights expert advice on various components of working well with the company who hires you. Our last issue focused on the relationship between you — the singer — and stage management. This issue's article looks at the relationship between you and the company's education department.
Recently, I had the privilege of watching 20 bright-eyed eighth and ninth grade youth as they participated in a backstage tour. Only one of them had ever seen an opera on television, and the rest of them had no previous exposure or experience at all. The students spent almost three hours visiting with set and lighting designers, a wig and make-up artist, a costume designer, and a props mistress. At the end of the presentation, the students were given a voucher for two complimentary tickets to La Cenerentola and an invitation to participate in our two-week summer opera camp on scholarship. However, the presentation lacked the key ingredient for turning people on to opera — the incredible vocal artistry and presence of an opera singer. It will be interesting to see if there are any "takers" of the tickets and camp scholarships, and I hope that there will be. The students heard a lot of talking and were able to ask questions, but the ultimate experience for them would have been to listen to and meet a singer.
It is my belief that singers are crucial to the success of opera education programs. During the past 12 years, serving as director of education for Lyric Opera of Kansas City, I have worked with countless artists. It is always a pleasure to take singers into the schools to meet young people. I also love to watch them as they rehearse and perform in our main stage productions and interact with our children's chorus members. It is a challenge to hire them to represent the Lyric Opera as they either work in a school with students for a six-week opera residency or take an opera on tour to schools, libraries, Head Start facilities, and correctional institutions for a two-hour residency. With that challenge comes a lot of joy and satisfaction. When OPERA America asked me to write an article for singers who work with education directors in opera companies, I decided to involve a number of my colleagues in the field of arts education. All of us agreed that the really excellent opera singers who assist our education departments have the following traits and behaviors, and serve as a guideline for singers working with education departments:
Assume that children are going to like, and even love, opera.
In education, a rule of thumb is, whatever your expectations are, that
is what you will get. Singers, if they believe that what they are prepared to sing is going to knock children's socks off, usually end their presentation looking at a lot of bare feet! Kids love opera. They love the fact that it is like a vocal Olympics. They love the fact that singers don't need to use a microphone because they have worked hard to train their bodies to do such phenomenal things. Because of this, it is not necessary to choose something in English that is unrelated to opera in the hope of making it more accessible for the students. By demonstrating your ability to sing with great feeling and to sustain high notes, you will pull them right in. Jean Ney, coordinator of fine arts in the Kansas City, Kansas public schools suggests, "As you are thoroughly professional about your craft, be thoroughly enthusiastic in your presentation. Above all, never lower your expectations."
Know the outcomes that you want to achieve with children and stay focused on those outcomes.
Ideally, outcomes for a one-time visit would be to know that by the time you are walking away from the presentation, the children have had a positive experience with opera and are showing some interest in actually attending a future production. In addition, there would be a sense that the audience treated the singers with respect and the singers did the same with the children and their teachers. An educator also knows that children learn in many different ways, and they respond best when they are invited to participate. Andrea Walters, director of education for The Santa Fe Opera, and Audra Kelley, assistant director of education for Lyric Opera of Kansas City, both stress that there are some things that are going to happen during a presentation that are beyond our control. However, if we keep our key areas of focus present in our minds, we can stay on track and succeed.
Just as a singer is expected to arrive for a main stage rehearsal 15 minutes ahead of the call, the same applies to an education presentation. It is important to be on time, especially since there could be an auditorium filled with squirmy young people and frustrated teachers who need to begin on time so that lunch, or whatever the next scheduled activity is, will not be late. Walters points out that all of us need to be aware that school teachers and administrators are under more and more pressure every year to help their students with academic achievement. We need to respect their schedule.
All of the educators agreed that if a singer is unprepared, especially in the case of needing to rehearse with others, it is unforgivable. Judith Ryder, director of education for Cleveland Opera, also encourages singers to be warmed up ahead of time, to learn to use their speaking voices well, and to "LOVE the idea of rehearsing and LOVE what you are doing!"
Be comfortable with the phrase "Be yourself".
When a singer is authentic with others, great things can happen. On the other hand, singers also need to be aware that there can be such a thing as being too authentic. Especially when singers are working closely with children in a residency or a main stage production, it may be necessary to monitor your language and behavior carefully. We cannot assume that just because our world is filled with so much garbage on television and in the movies that it is appropriate for children's ears and eyes. It is essential that we honor children.
Get along well with your colleagues.
Singers who are capable of creating mature and respectful (and fun!) relationships with their colleagues have greater success not only in education presentations, but in main stage productions as well. Nicolas Reveles, director of education for San Diego Opera, says that this is one of the most important skills he looks for when hiring. In fact, he says, "I would much rather hire my second choice if that person can get along with colleagues. The most talented singer is not always my first choice if that singer is difficult for others to be around." Ryder further emphasizes that singers must stay open to new ideas and have great listening skills. As a matter of fact, these aren't bad behaviors to demonstrate with children as well!
All of the educators believe that singers are our "most valuable resource." Singers are what make our programs shine, and we appreciate all that they have done for us and all that they will be doing for our companies in the future. All of us concurred that we have worked with some really excellent singers, and that the really great singers are the ones who are invited back to work again because they sing well AND do so much more than sing. They realize, as Flawn Barber, director of production for Lyric Opera of Kansas City says, "that in order for the art form to continue and grow, they need to be willing to form partnerships with the education departments and see this as their mission. When opera encompasses everyone — peo
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