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Lifetime Lessons at Opera Camp

Posted on: July 24, 2019

The 72 youngsters that take part in Opera Camp are learning everything it takes to stage an opera (everything from animal mask creation to conquering stage fright, for instance). It’s impressive enough that they’re able to perform a fully-staged opera after only 15 days of working together. But layer on an additional focus on social justice, and you end up with a summer camp experience that’s something these talented kids will remember far beyond the final bows.    

When they’re not learning the music or working out the basics of stage movement, our campers are immersed in powerful experiences and discussions about civil rights and social justice. This provides context for the opera that they’ll be performing (“Then I Stood Up: A Civil Rights Cycle”), while helping them truly connect with the issues they depict within the piece. 

An Immersive Exhibition on Civil Rights 

Last week, campers and teaching artists loaded up into school buses and left downtown LA to visit the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC). There, Tim Watkins, president and CEO of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC) and Tina Watkins, General Manager of Development, personally walked them through an immersive exhibit on the African-American civil rights movement. Campers could see a life-size recreation of a wooden slave hold from ships like La Amistad, then walk down a virtual Mississippi Delta road, where they could see artifacts like, a car and a house, giving them context as to what it might have felt like in the deep south of the 1960s.  

WLCAC OperaCamp Visit

Opera Campers in front of a mural at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee

Civil Rights Workshop 

Back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, campers took part in a civil rights workshop with actor, teacher and community activist, Chaka Forman. He's the son of James Forman Sr., a pioneer in the American civil rights movement. The group workshop focused on providing a historical context of the African-American civil rights movement and led important discussions about topics like privilege and racism, and even how biases have an impact on social interactions.   

Music with Miss America 

They kicked off week number two with a visit from the reigning Miss America, Nia Franklin, a classically trained singer, composer and arts advocate. She led the campers through a quick composing workshop, walking them through the basics of music theory while making everything simple and fun (like using their birthdays or favorite day of the week to determine the notes). The campers composed short musical medleys and a few even heard their pieces performed in front of the group. They thanked Miss America by giving her a preview from their upcoming opera.

"Loved every second!" she noted after her visit.   

Nia Opera Camp

Miss America, Nia Franklin, helps opera campers with their compositions

A Visit with a Civil Rights Hero 

Week three gets even more powerful, as the campers will meet Carlotta Walls LaNier, the youngest member of the Little Rock Nine. Ms. LaNier will share her incredible experience as one of the nine brave teens who challenged segregation by enrolling in Little Rock's all-white Central High School in 1957 (three years after Brown v. The Board of Education desegregated schools). In 1999, she and the other members of the Little Rock Nine received the nation’s highest civilian award, the Congressional Gold Medal by President Bill Clinton.  

2011 17 201 002 seven of little rock nine

The Little Rock Nine | Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Elmer J. Whiting, III, © Gertrude Samuels. Object number 2011.17.201. 

EVEN More Museums and Survivor Testimonials 

The final two off-site trips include visits to both the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) and the Japanese American National Museum. While at LAMOTH, in addition to seeing powerful exhibits "that commemorate those who perished [and] honor those who survived” (like the Tree of Testimony, a 70-screen video sculpture displaying nearly 51,000 testimonies, and a recreation of a train car used to transport victims to concentration camps), students will also speak personally with a Holocaust survivor.  

“Getting to hear the real stories from people who lived through the struggles we were performing about, made it that much more impactful,” said former camper Victoria Mestas (who’s now interning with LA Opera). “I’m much more aware of history now, and also how social issues are just as relevant today as they were then.” 

Why is this important?  

As Miss Watkins told us recently for an upcoming podcast, “More than ever, we need young people who’ve been trained to think big and to dream big.”  

While we help train the next generation of artists, we’re focused on making sure that they’re fully aware of their responsibility and the unique opportunity to convey important messages through their art.  

“More than ever, artists have a vital role to play in the life of our country. The operas they perform intentionally depict young heroes so that our campers can relate personally and be inspired by them,” notes Stacy Brightman, VP of LA Opera Connects. “It’s our honor, and our responsibility, to help nurture and train these young performers to think bigger than their lines, or music, and to realize what effect they can have on the world.”