Teens and opera – there’s a connection there. You might think that teenagers in Los Angeles would never think about it or avoid it, assuming it’s old fashioned and boring. But, LA Opera is challenging that narrative by bringing opera directly to Los Angeles’ secondary school students.
Every year LA Opera’s Education and Community Engagement’s program, Secondary In-School Opera (SISO), offers an original opera specifically commissioned for middle and high school students. On as many as 10 campuses across all five Los Angeles districts, students work together as an ensemble to build critical music and performance skills, under the direction of professional teaching artists from LA Opera. During one class period a week, for ten weeks each fall they put together an opera. On performance day a truck rolls up to the campus with sets, costumes, technical equipment, and more. Students are joined by several professional opera singers and orchestra members for their final dress rehearsal and a stirring performance for their peers, parents and special invited guests.
If bringing this art form to students was all SISO offered, it would be amazing.
But wait, there’s more!
LA Opera’s in-house Education and Community Engagement Department has a greater goal in mind: setting stories specifically based in California history and language arts curriculum. Students don’t just experience opera inside and out, they’re educated in a myriad of other areas as well.
Participating teachers attend an in-service and are provided extensive resource materials designed to help them make the most of this arts-integrated educational opportunity. In addition to music, dance and theater training which few students have the opportunity to explore in their daily life, they also receive their own singer’s notebook. The notebook contains exercises for the students to dig deeper into the content and rehearsal reflections to investigate their personal feelings and experience. Through the program, students are sometimes given opera-specific activities, like the chance to construct a personalized costume component. Classes who attend the performance are provided educational materials to enhance their viewing experience.
But wait, there’s even more!
Participating students are invited to attend a dress rehearsal of an upcoming LA Opera main stage production through our Opera Prep program, with live world-class orchestra and performers. They also get to interact directly with the professionals working on the production, such as orchestra members, cast members, director, assistant conductor, etc., who come speak to the students about their personal career pathway. This enables students to hear from an individual who may have a shared background or life-situation and became a part of opera at a renowned opera house, planting the seeds of inspiration and possibility.
BUT WAIT…THERE’S STILL MORE!
LA Opera’s education manager, Nathan Rifenburg, explains that students don’t always start out as enthusiastic participants. For some, exposure to music and singing as individuals or an ensemble is limited. Few have been a part of a stage production or understand all the elements involved. Rarely have any publicly performed to an audience numbering in the hundreds. This can be daunting. Through the rehearsal process students build crucial peer relationships. They share responsibility for the group effort and a personal growth experience. They discover something about themselves and their world that they may not have been aware of previously. From their first hesitant self-doubting steps, to executing their final successful bows, they experience opera together as a team.
One of the most important lessons learned from LA Opera’s SISO is confidence. Students not only survive the experience, they thrive. Those who share this trial-by-fire appreciate the amazing sense of triumph in overcoming their self-imposed obstacles and are inspired by the thrill of success which is so integral to a live performance experience. Never to be forgotten, it can be built upon in multiple aspects of a student’s future. This sort of experience cannot be bought, taught or granted. It must be lived.
This fall’s SISO opera is The White Bird of Poston— a youth opera composed by LA Opera’s Education and Community Engagement resident stage director, Eli Villanueva, with book by librettist Leslie Stevens. It’s the tale of a young Japanese American teen, sent with her grandfather to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, during World War II. Themes of the opera are standing up to prejudice, rediscovering cultural traditions, and finding the courage and confidence to lead in an uncertain world. Relevant real-world issues explored are cultural differences, stereotypes, and personal and social responsibility.
For more information about LA Opera’s Secondary In-School Opera or this season’s production, click here.
Erin Knell is a student at California State University, Northridge majoring in journalism with a minor in English. Her previous internship experiences have involved public relations for a small documentary film, an event at the Valley Performing Arts Center and The Museum of the San Fernando Valley. She has been published in several literary magazines and for syndication online.