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Eli Villanueva: Opera Camp's Secret Weapon

Posted on: June 11, 2020

As Resident Stage Director for LA Opera Connects, Eli Villanueva has played many roles: director, composer, writer, educator and performer (among others). But right now he’s primarily a problem solver: figuring out how to convert a three-week, intensive Opera Camp—which typically packs dozens of high-energy youngsters into rehearsal rooms for staging rehearsals, singing classes and choreography sessionsinto a new online format appropriate for the quarantine era. 

A native Angeleno, Eli has been sharing his passion for opera with Southland kids for over 25 years, beginning as a baritone soloist in Lee Holdridge’s Journey to Córdoba and subsequent productions that teamed professional singers with elementary students. He found it easy to work with the kids and help them prepare for their performances. “In rehearsal, I guess I was rather vocal and specific about how things could be done better.” Llewellyn Crain, who ran the education department at the time, took notice. “She decided to make me put my money where my mouth was and offered me the chance to be the assistant director on one of the shows, back in 1997 or 1998, and then as director in 2000. It was a big eye-opener. Thank goodness, I was working with Dan Bridston who was the program’s music director at that point. I really learned a lot from him, especially about how to engage with young people who may be uncomfortable with performing.  

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Eli leading a conversation at Opera Camp (Photo Credit: Taso Papadakis)

(It probably didn’t hurt that Eli had been a young performer himself. As members of the California Boys’ Choir, a professional ensemble, he and his brother LeRoy sang with the LA Philharmonic and LA Master Chorale and on concert tours. With the choir, he even appeared with the New York City Opera when it needed a children’s chorus for productions touring to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, back in the pre-LA Opera days.) 

Eli’s continued success led Stacy C. Brightman, the Vice President of LA Opera Connects, to offer him the position of Resident Stage Director. And when Stacy discovered that Eli was also a composer—after seeing a children’s piece that he had written for a friend—she asked why he wasn’t composing for her. “I thought, ‘You have great composers like Lee Holdridge, why would you need me?’” 

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Eli teaching students performance exercises (Photo Credit: Taso Papadakis)

But with his experience as a director and performer in schools, Eli had a lot of insight into how kids learned and how to make opera accessible to them. Starting off with the children's show Figaro’s American Adventure in 2004, which combined The Barber of Seville with Revolutionary War-era history, he’s now composed numerous productions for the opera’s school programs and for Opera Camp, most of them in collaboration with his brother LeRoy as librettist 

With the 2007 launch of the annual community opera at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, he began working on a much larger scale, staging productions featuring several hundred performers of all ages. He’s directed 12 of the 13 Cathedral productions to date, including The Festival Play of Daniel, a 13th-century liturgical play that he reshaped into something suitable for the massive cast and orchestra. “It was fun to find opportunities for the ensemble to sing and dance. Oh, and for extra measure, he also translated the original Latin text into a new English libretto. 

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Eli in Opera Camp's performance of Then I Stood Up (Photo Credit: Taso Papadakis)

Opera Camp evolved from the In-School Opera program, when some of the kids were eager for additional opportunities to perform. "At first it was a weeklong experience, and eventually it grew into an intensive summer camp. It was evolved to where we’re now finding lots of kids who really want to be professional singers. And we’re mixing them up with others who don’t have any professional aspirations but want to have fun. 

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Eli in Opera Camp's performance of Then I Stood Up (Photo Credit: Taso Papadakis)

It’s the shared experience that means the most to Eli, drawing his cast members together into a tightly knit tribe of performers as they create something for audiences to enjoy. And that's what he's puzzling over now, figuring out ways to draw the participants in this summer’s online Opera Camp into one big family. “Fortunately for me, I’m an insomniac.” If anyone can figure it out, it’s Eli.