Our Elementary In-School Opera program gets a new look.
The cast members might be cooped up at home these days, but the show must go on(line). With classrooms empty, LA Opera’s Connects team had to rethink the annual In-School Opera program—a highly interactive, communal experience—from the ground up. The only option was to move to Zoom (just like the rest of us).
In a “normal” year, Connects sends professional opera singers and teaching artists into elementary and secondary classrooms to guide students as they learn the basics of singing and acting, rehearse the musical parts of an opera (targeted for their age group, of course) and refine their dramatic performances. Then they put everything together for a show where the kids perform chorus roles right alongside the adult professionals, all in front of an audience of their fellow students and families. This happens twice a year, with one version for high schoolers and one for elementary students.
Yeah... way too "in person" for these days.
Last summer’s Opera Camp proved that Connects could bring teens together online for a wildly creative opera experience. A few months later, it was time for the Secondary In-School Opera (SISO). In this program, the teaching artists coached and rehearsed with high school students to perform a new opera, Edge of Dream, by composer Juhi Bansal and librettist Neil Aitkin. Everyone participated from home via Zoom conferencing for a thrilling online performance. More than 300 students recorded their musical parts, individually, and then submitted character photos of themselves to be edited together. The Connects team took it from there, combining the students’ submissions to create 10 different variations of the final digital opera performance, one for each of the participating schools (Beverly Vista Middle School, East Los Angeles Performing Arts Magnet, Gabrielino High School, Griffith STEAM Magnet Middle School, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies, North Hollywood High Zoo Magnet, Ramon C. Cortines School of VAPA, Santee Education Complex, Verdugo Hills High School, View Park Preparatory High School).
And now, it’s the elementary kids’ turn. Incorporating lessons learned from the high schoolers’ experience, Connects tailored the program for a younger and even larger group over the last few months, using plenty of humor, positivity, encouragement, cajoling and good old-fashioned patience.
And voila! The Elementary In-School Opera kids are currently rehearsing their adapted version of Figaro’s American Adventure, based on The Barber of Seville. The Figaro workshops and rehearsals wrap up in March and then the Connects team will work its editing magic once again.
“Since we couldn’t go onstage with the Secondary In-School Opera production in 2020, it became an operatic online graphic novel, with a look inspired by comic books,” said Eli Villanueva, LA Opera’s resident director for Connects. “For the elementary version, we’re creating a digital storybook version of the opera, a video with a slide show and music playing underneath. We’re working with 450 students from 15 different schools so we will have quite an editing job ahead of us!”
Balboa Elementary and Vena Elementary each have one classroom taking part in this spring's In-School Opera, and eight schools had two different participating classrooms: Kittridge Street Elementary, Cesar Chavez Elementary, Gates Street Elementary, Micheltorena Elementary, Rockdale Elementary, Webster Middle School and Westport Heights Elementary.
In both the in-person and online versions of In-School Opera, Eli and his colleagues train the participants (even the shy ones and the self-professed non-singers) to sing, act and interact with their fellow performers. This time around, he’s also showing them how to record musical tracks, photograph themselves, photograph their backgrounds, and then submit all of those various electronic files to be incorporated into one digital presentation of the opera.
“Each week they have a homework assignment that involves recording themselves. We teach them about good camera work, to be aware of lighting, background and what they’re looking at, and how to keep up their playfulness and energy when they’re taking a picture. As much as possible, we try to make it a low-key technological effort on the part of these younger students and their families. After all, because of their ages, we expect that it’s the parents who’ll be doing much of the photography and recording on behalf of the kids.”
Online conferencing may make the whole process possible, but what about “Zoom fatigue”? The teachers have shared that most of the kids are loving the online opera and that it helps to motivate them to keep “showing up” for the rest of the school day. At the same time, the whole process has enough elasticity so that if a student can’t get the photos in or can only submit part of their recording for whatever reason, our teaching artists assure them that it’s all okay, and it’s all going to work out in the end. Indeed, the students’ enthusiasm and joy are contagious. “The kids are so much fun to work with,” says Eli. “They have an openness and energy, and they’re having fun with the story concept. I can really feel that energy coming back to me on the computer.”