For the past fifteen years, Eli Villanueva has worked with LA Opera’s Education and Community Engagement team to bring opera to the Los Angeles Community. An accomplished performer, stage director, and composer, Villanueva has performed in and composed several works for the company’s various education programs (Opera Camp, Opera Tales, and In-School Opera) and has also directed many community productions, including the popular operas staged annually at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. Through his work, Villanueva strives to impact how children see the world and offer them the same excitement he had when he first “caught the opera bug.”
Villanueva caught the opera bug at age 12. At the time, the New York City Opera would tour in Los Angeles, staging a few operas a year. Villanueva performed with the California Boys Choir and through this choir was cast as a member of the children’s chorus in Puccini’s La Bohème. “I got to actually stand next to operas singers, which I thought was the most amazing thing,” recalls Villanueva. He continues, “I truly feel that it’s that experience of being next to an opera singer that really changes a child’s perspective of the whole art form.”
Villanueva’s work with the Education & Community Engagement team focuses on changing people’s perspective of opera.
He started off singing in the department’s community productions that would tour schools and get kids of all ages excited about opera. Then, he also started composing. When Senior Director Stacy Brightman saw one of Villanueva’s children’s operas performed at another company, she asked him to compose a piece based on the repertoire the LA Opera produces on the mainstage. Together with his brother Leroy, Villanueva composed and produced Figaro’s American Adventure, based on Gioachino Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. The dynamic duo then brought the opera into elementary and secondary schools, giving kids the ability to perform opera alongside the pros. Villanueva has worked with the company ever since, getting kids excited about opera, about performing, and about sharing the arts with friends and family.
“There’s still this perception that opera singers are big and have really big, high, wobbly voices, and wear Viking horns and helmets,” says Villanueva. “It’s great to break that perception by bringing them an opera that’s more fun. In the stories we create for children, they are actually hearing the music of the operas they would see on the mainstage, but we’ve altered the content so that it is relevant to what they might be learning, or to what we perceive they are ready to hear, as far as classical music.” Villanueva has found that children become more interested in the arts after participating in one of LA Opera’s programs. When Villanueva and a team of artists bring opera into schools, the kids love the experience so much that they ask teachers to hear more opera, and are then exposed to the original content.
Villanueva’s work with LA Opera goes beyond sharing his passion for opera with children in the community and altering their perspective of the art form. His work with LA Opera boosts children’s confidence and helps them see their world differently.
“Sometimes, we work with students who are on the outskirts of what’s going on in the school. They aren’t necessarily accepted in the classroom and may not be doing as well academically. When we work with these students, we give them an environment in which to express themselves, to explore, and find their voice, their personality,” says Villanueva. “Before working with us in school or during our summer opera camp, they have no idea how much they connect with theater and music and that this is where their soul lies. We have students, who find themselves while working with us, and then turn around and become leaders, and start doing better academically.”
He recalls working with a teenage girl in the In-School Opera Program. She wasn’t participating as well as the other kids; she felt out of place. Upon discovering that she and his daughter have the same name, Villanueva set out to connect with this student and help her enjoy the opera rehearsal experience. He told her that she reminded him of his daughter and that he hoped she would participate and make him proud. “That somehow connected with her and she started to participate. This experience helped her express herself. She became a leader within that class and I could really depend on her during rehearsals,” says Villanueva.
Some of the students that Villanueva works with will never be performers; others are actively pursuing careers in the arts. But, when they come together to create opera future career pursuits don’t matter. All the children and teens are encouraged to be playful, learn from mistakes, and create a wonderful piece of art to share with friends and family. They gain confidence through these programs and, through the arts, become leaders in any field they wish to pursue.
To learn more about our many programs for children and teens, click here.LA Opera is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the greater good.