According to a recent study from the US Department of Education, only 4% of elementary schools provide any kind of theater arts instruction. This is down from 20% only a decade ago. That's just one reason that San Francisco’s Little Opera is so extraordinary.
Little Opera is an after-school program that leads local children through the creation and performance of an original opera. This past year, the program's third season, kids in first through fifth grade met twice a week for nine months at West Portal Elementary School.
What’s perhaps most striking about Little Opera is that, unlike most children’s theater companies in which the kids are actors and the adults call the shots, these kids have the final word on every artistic decision: from storyline to music composition to how short a sleeve should be on the queen’s costume.
That is exactly how the company’s founder Erin Bregman imagined it.
“I had this idea sort of percolating for a long time of creating a children's theater company, where everything was made by kids,” explains Bregman, who founded Little Opera in 2011.
On the first day of Little Opera, Bregman and a staff of teaching artists ask the kids, “What is opera?” It’s a diverse group that includes African American, Caucasian, Latino and Asian-American kids—and their experience with opera is similarly diverse.
Says Bregman: “Depending on if they’ve had any exposure to opera before, you get everything from ‘We already know that it's some theater onstage where everything is music and a lot of people die’...to ‘Is it Oprah?’”
That’s why Bregman always shows the kids the Bugs Bunny cartoon What's Opera Doc? on the first day. “And after we show that to kids there's really no conversation after that at all of opera not being something that is theirs,” she says.
The Creative Process
It’s one thing to understand the concept of opera, but it's another thing to actually start writing one, especially with kids as young as six. They start by brainstorming a list of possibilities for the opera's setting.
“The choices this year...vary dramatically,” notes Claire Shaw, the managing director and music specialist of Little Opera. The list includes a fun fair, Antarctica, jungle, underwater, a pumpkin house. They even toy with setting an opera inside someone’s big toe. But after taking it to a secret vote—eyes closed—they settle on a "Crystal Castle in Antarctica."
Over the next eight months, the kids will make many more big decisions about their opera. But it’s still a delicate balance, as they work with teachers and visiting artists: Little Opera wants to make sure that the kids are in the driver’s seat, but they also want the opera to make sense and to clock in significantly shorter than Wagner’s 15-hour Ring Cycle.
Explains Shaw: “One of the biggest questions that teaching artists have is: ‘How much do I--not necessarily dominate, but steer where this goes?’ You’re guiding them...you’re guiding them to a good story."
Now, the really hard work begins. The kids develop a list of characters: the Royal Family; their Coo-Coo Bird and their Butler; a corps of Crystal Warriors; and the Villain. The kids begin to flesh out a story about the Villain’s plan to steal the the kingdom’s mysterious and powerful Crystal Diamond. Along the way there’s a fake diamond, a trance, a synchronized drumming routine, and a lesson learned.
According to Bregman, because the kids have written the story and know the characters, once they get to the lyrics and the composition they generally know how they want it to sound.
“They may not know the exact notes, but they really have a clear idea of what's the shape of this musically—in a really broad sense. And then our job is focusing that and getting it specific,” she says.
Still, getting children to focus—period—is not an easy job. When I visit four months into the season, teacher Suzanne Vradelis is working with an antsy group of kids on the libretto, the opera’s lyrics. Amidst talking and wandering minds, she coaxes them along with questions.
“What makes a home?” she asks. Love. Family. She scribbles down the words because these will become the lyrics to a song.
“Why is the Crystal Diamond so important?” she continues. One young girl raises her hand.
“It gets warmer and warmer, because of love,” the seven-year-old explains.
And that’s what happens. Sometimes it comes together and the kids say something profound and poetic. Or they conjure up the perfect rhythm just by saying the words over and over until a beat emerges.
As the pieces are beginning to take shape, Little Opera invites professional musicians to come play the works-in-progress and give the kids a chance to adjust their compositions. One afternoon, the Friction Quartet play selections and the kids offer feedback. Hold a note longer. Make that more forceful. Maybe you could all try plucking the strings.
Visiting cellist Doug Machiz says if he had an experience like Little Opera when he was a kid, it would have changed his musical life dramatically. He began playing piano at six and found the experience both bland and intense.
“I studied with a Russian teacher,” he explains. “He was very serious and wanted me to memorize pieces and learn all the notes. And I think this would have brought much more lighthearted and fun angle on music and it would have really stimulated my imagination of what music can mean.”
Putting on the Show
Ultimately, founder Erin Bregman says she thinks Little Opera is nurturing a new generation of musical makers: kids who “aren't afraid to make things and aren't afraid to dive into things which they're not experts in...which I think is very much part of the whole entrepreneurial spirit of the Bay Area right now.”
But it’s about more than making; it’s also about putting on a show.
“It's a performing art, so the piece isn't finished until it's performed in front of an audience,” says Bregman.
And so, nine months after they first met back in September, it’s show time. Sets and costumes are built to the specifications of the kids. They move from the elementary school classrooms to the elegant, curtained stage of the Mission’s Community Music Center. And backstage during the final dress rehearsal, the energy is frenetic.
“Sometimes when I was little I used to...I was performing and I was soooo nervous I just ran off the stage and started panicking,” explains one girl.
“How do you make sure that you enjoy it?” I ask.
“I just let it go and just have fun,” she answers.
In the end, a total of 250 people came to see two sold-out shows. Family and friends were treated to performances full of energy and passion, including a synchronized drumming routine and an intricate shadow puppet scene. Sure, there were flubbed lines and missed cues. But perfection was never the goal. All in all, the season was a huge success.
For founder Erin Bregman, the real sign that Little Opera is working is that the kids are already talking about possible stories and settings for their next opera.
Registration for the 2015-2016 season is open till October 14th. There is a fee for the program, but scholarships are available—and no child is turned away for lack of funds.
This story originally aired in September of 2014.