Sunday, October 18, 2009

Opera Express: family fun at Duke Gardens

Photo by Gregory Cable

Touring company makes opera an interactive delight

By Lauren Sims

As a horde of young children swarmed into the elementary school’s ladies' room for hugs and autographs, I imagined this must be what it’s like to be Hannah Montana. But I am no Hannah Montana, that’s for sure. I am a classically trained singer, and the performance that had worked these kids into such a frenzy was not marked by smoke effects or pyrotechnics. It was, in fact, a Mozart opera.

Opera Express, the educational arm of Charlotte-based Opera Carolina, has been bringing opera to elementary-aged students for more than 30 years. The company is a favorite in Sarah P. Duke Gardens’ Arts in the Garden series, which will kick off its 2009-10 season on Oct. 24 with Opera Express’ “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

My Hannah Montana moment happened while I was touring with the company in “The Three Little Pigs.” Like other Opera Express Productions, it combined a favorite fairy tale with classic operatic melodies.

It’s a productive pairing, says Teresa Robertson, Opera Carolina’s director of education.

“If you want someone to learn something new, you have to start them from what they already know. …We all know the stories and elements of stories. So then we can take them from that known to the unknown, which is the art form.”

These shows are specifically designed with elementary school students in mind. Restricted to under an hour in length, they keep kids engaged with a combination of playful music, bright colors and fast-paced staging. Additionally, children’s operas are deliberately connected with the literary structures students are learning in the classroom.

“This is not ‘extra’, it is another form of looking at the elements of a story,” says Robertson, a former public school teacher. “And true learning is going to occur if students can take what they’re learning in one sense and … apply that to another story genre -- that is, opera.”

The results are astounding. Young children who may never have been exposed to such sounds find themselves entranced with music that is hundreds of years old. They laugh at the performers’ antics, giggle and scream when the characters come into the audience, and clap and shout during the curtain call. By the end of the show, students are able to identify characters by terms like “protagonist” and “antagonist.” Finally, they leave the show with a new appreciation for, and desire to learn about, the classical arts.

After the shows, children are welcome to stick around to ask questions, meet the performers and take pictures. If you come to Duke Gardens’ performance, bring your imagination and plenty of energy, and prepare to experience the time-honored art form of opera in a whole new way!

The Oct. 24 performance is at 11 a.m. Tickets are $8 and are available by calling (919) 684-4444 or at

Lauren Sims is a former Young Artist with Opera Carolina. She is currently pursuing a Master of Divinity degree at Duke Divinity School.

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