Not just fat ladies in steel bras
There’s singing. Then there’s singing.
The 6- and 7-year-olds at East San Jose Elementary School had most likely never heard a soprano singing opera before. At least not live, not standing right there among them while they sat cross-legged on a crowded gymnasium floor.
When Joanna Morska-Osinska let loose with a soaring aria, hundreds of little eyes popped open and jaws dropped. Boys rose to their knees for a better look. Girls’ faces glowed as they watched this beautiful woman hold loud, high notes effortlessly and seemingly forever. The children were feeling magic, the kind of magic that can make the world a different place for a lifetime.
Morska-Osinska was singing on behalf of Opera Unlimited, an Albuquerque volunteer organization that brings opera into schools all over New Mexico. William Sirco, a bass, soprano Katie Gill, and pianist Cara Hammond joined her in presenting a mini-opera about Aesop’s Fables. Mixed among the arias and duets was a cha-cha-cha that got 200 kids clapping out the rhythm in perfect time with the music. Then Gill whipped out a guitar for an original blues number. In her other life she dons a cowboy hat and pointy boots when she croons with the Buckarettes, a Texas-swing band.
I also saw this company’s show at the Los Ranchos Elementary School, where it had the same effect. Hundreds of kids were dazzled, enchanted. Live music and theater can do that. Sadly, it’s become a rare experience for too many New Mexico schoolchildren.
Opera Unlimited has met kids who have trouble comprehending what they’re experiencing. “Where’s the TV?” they'll ask, even though the source of the music, dance and theater—three-dimensional human beings like themselves—stands right before their eyes. A box providing ready-made sounds and images has become their point of reference for human creativity.
In 1990, Opera Unlimited was launched because its founders saw this change in culture coming. Arts were being cut from the schools. Something had to be done.
Opera Unlimited leverages very little money to bring opera to schools all over the state. On a budget of less than $30,000, last year they provided 61 school performances ranging from “trunk shows”—where the costumes, set and props fit in a car’s trunk—to full-blown productions.
Thanks to Opera Unlimited, schoolchildren in places like Jal, Cliff, Tierra Amarilla, Gallina, Alcalde, Zuni, Shiprock and the poorest schools around Albuquerque have experienced opera performed live by professional artists.
Morska-Osinska, for instance, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and played violin with the Warsaw Philharmonic. Sirco has performed with the Santa Fe Opera’s outreach program. Other Opera Unlimited performers have sung in Europe or with major American opera companies.
The performers get paid all of $70 per performance, whether they’re singing in Taylor Ranch or Roy. It may require three months of practice to prepare for the first show. When they travel, they sometimes sleep three to a room in cheap motels. They do it because they love singing, especially singing for children.
A small core of volunteers provides all of the set design and production, costumes, publicity, management, and scheduling. Basically only nine perennial volunteers have produced hundreds of performances in schools hundreds of miles apart.
Then there’s the summer program. Every year Opera Unlimited runs a five-week full-immersion opera boot camp for children ages 6 through 18. Highland High School hosts the program. The course costs $50. Scholarships are provided for children whose families can’t afford that small sum. Participants learn how to really sing, build sets, make costumes, dance, harmonize and work together as a creative team.
And they perform, gloriously. I heard some of their graduates performing excerpts from Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado at the Adobe Theater. They were as poised and masterful as anyone I’ve ever heard sing that music.
Last year, Opera Unlimited’s students performed Brundibár, an opera staged by Jewish prisoners in the Terezin Nazi concentration camp. The opera depicts an allegorical struggle between good and evil. Poor children sing in the market square to earn money to help their sick mother. But Brundibár, an evil organ grinder (a thinly veiled representation of Hitler), runs them off. With the help of other children, and support from a wise dog, brave sparrow and savvy cat, they chase evil Brundibár away and eventually succeed in singing freely in the market square.
Most of the original performers and the opera’s composer were exterminated at Auschwitz. From his personal experience, the director of Albuquerque’s Holocaust Museum spoke to the children of what happened in that dark time. The lessons of Brundibár will not be soon forgotten by the young people who spent last summer with Opera Unlimited.
But why opera? I asked Christopher Moody, the group’s president. Why not another, perhaps more popular art form? “Because opera has it all,” he answered. “A story ... acting, singing, dancing. It is a unique art form that uses music to heighten the emotional effect of the story.”
“If our performances can light a spark in just a handful of children,” explains Moody, “it is worth it. Our popular culture is a lowest-common-denominator culture. When children are exposed in a sensitive way to the arts, a few of them will see there is more out there than they see on TV or hear on the radio ...”
Opera Unlimited is transitioning from presenting Aesop’s Fables to performing Mozart. I caught their dress rehearsal in front of two-dozen children at the Cumberland Heights Presbyterian Church. At the end, the kids agreed opera was more than “fat ladies in steel bras,” a line shouted out by a 9-year-old boy.
As a way of saying thanks, three girls sang “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” for the performers. The performers, in return, explained that the tune is sometimes credited to Mozart and demonstrated how it sounded in three parts. I overheard the girls promising each other they were going to learn to sing harmony like that because it sounded just so totally awesome.
That surely counts as three sparks Opera Unlimited struck that day alone. And it was only rehearsal.