Everyone loves a good story. That’s true whether you’re an adult reading the latest world news online or a child listening to a picture book being read. The latter is the core of the newest educational initiative in LA Opera’s already robust roster of inspiring programs.
Since January, LA Opera staff members and artists have read to kids in various grade levels at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. A rewarding experience, Read Aloud offers staff members the opportunity to give back to the Los Angeles community – a core tenant of the company’s mission. It also provides children the opportunity to ask staff members about opera and the arts.
“I think that kids are just innately curious. They want to know how things work. They are with you all the way when you read to them, and so anxious to be part of this exchange,” says Gerrie Maloof, Senior Director, Labor Relations and Human Resources, of her experience. Production and Human Resources Administrator Nadine Bedrossian adds: “I think the most surprising thing when I went was that kids started cheering when I said that I’m from LA Opera. I asked, ‘Does it make me cool that I work at LA Opera?’ and the kids yelled, ‘Yeah!’ It’s so cute how excited they were about LA Opera specifically.”
LA Opera and MLK Elementary have a long-standing history of collaboration. The company brings its In-School Opera Program to the school each year. This program provides elementary and secondary schools with a team of teaching artists and directors who teach students all the elements of producing a children’s opera, including music, staging, costumes, and technical theater. The students then perform the opera alongside professional artists for their peers and family. Some kids at MLK Elementary have seen opera before through this In-School Program or at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion; others have not seen an opera before in their lives.
What all the kids – from second through sixth grade – have in common is an enthusiasm for storytelling.
Staff members have read various books to the kids, both arts and non-arts related. Favorites include Gary Clement’s The Great Poochini, about a lyric tenor dog; Opera Cat which tells the story of a cat, who fills in for her owner at the opera; and a plethora of Dr. Seuss books.
Rehearsal Administrator Nicki Harper recalls how fun it was to read Opera Cat to the kids, because she could see that, even though the kids all had really distinct personalities, they all connected with this simple story about a little cat that could. After Harper finished the story, MLK Elementary librarian Karina Aguilar asked the class, “Did you like the story?” One little precocious child answered, “I didn’t like it. I loved it!”
For his Read Aloud session, tenor Rafael Moras (a member of LA Opera’s Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program) took on The Great Poochini, a book that’s filled with wonderful opera puns, creating an entire dog-friendly operatic world (complete with an opera house called the “Muttropolitan” Opera). The main character is named Signor Poochini, an opera singing dog described as “handsome, housebroken and hounded by throngs of adoring fans.” Of course, with such amazing material, how could Moras not end up singing to the kids? When the book talks about Poochini warming up, Moras warmed up, and after he finished, the kids asked many questions about what it’s like to be an opera singer. Moras even ended up singing a little bit of the classic Spanish song “Cielito Lindo.”
“As an opera singer, it’s always the goal to be able to really share something that is honest and sincere with an audience and these kids are so bright, so charming, and enthusiastic, they make that goal instantly attainable. You want to share something of yourself and your experience with them, because their joy and their interest are infectious,” says Moras. He continues, “When I told these kids that I am an opera singer, I was really humbled by their excitement, because you know I was their age once. I remember what a thrill it was to see recordings of Maestro Domingo on VHS. There was something so powerful about the art form that I would sit there transfixed by Maestro Domingo singing Zarzuela, singing opera.”
The kids at MLK Elementary might grow up to be opera singers; they might not. They might grow up to be writers, artists, engineers, pilots or just about anything they want to be. But through programs like Read Aloud, the hope is that they might become lifelong lovers of the arts, classical music, and opera. As Maloof says, “It’s not just about reading a story to kids. Read Aloud is about representatives from a major Los Angeles cultural institution making a commitment to LAUSD [Los Angeles United School District] programs.” To go even further, Read Aloud is about sharing a passion and love of the arts with these children, and in doing so, enrich their lives.
To learn more about LA Opera’s educational and community programs, click here.