OPERA ON WHEELS: Bizet’s ‘Carmen’ goes to preschool

Courtesy of Toledo Blade, 2014

- Published Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Toledo Opera really wants to make opera accessible to all.

For years, it has taken adapted productions of famed operas to elementary schools all over the northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan region through its Opera on Wheels program. Some 20,000 students in 60 schools engage with opera first-hand.

Now, the Toledo Opera is lowering the age of its latest target audience — all the way to preschool.

That’s why, in the two weeks surrounding Election Day, Pittsburgh-based teaching artist Christina Farrell was sitting on the floor of rooms in Toledo Day Nursery and the Catholic Club, engaging tiny tots through story, actions, and, especially, music.

“An opera is a story,” she sang to upturned 3-year-old faces, “and all of the words are sung.”

While Toledo Day Nursery teacher Jessica Runk and several aides observed, the 11 youngsters responded quickly and naturally to Farrell’s vocals and accompanying hand motions.

As they enthusiastically participated in her structured presentation, Farrell, a professional theater educator who in 2005 founded Opera Ignite, encouraged and expanded their efforts.

“Laugh like a grandpa,” she said, smiling broadly, to encourage the kids to use their deepest voices.

Then, “make baby owl sounds,” she said, urging them to squeak out their highest pitches.

Out of a bejeweled hat box she pulled simple props to help tell the story of Carmen, Bizet’s famed tragic opera.

While adult opera lovers were anticipating a lavish Metropolitan Opera production for its Live in HD series in early November, Farrell and Toledo Opera artists in residence were bringing the same characters to life in age-specific ways.

It all seemed like play to these youngsters, who remained highly engaged.

But, guided by their teachers’ specific developmental goals, the visiting artist actually was hard at work building fluency, pre-reading skills, vocabulary, and physical coordination.

During the 20-minute activity, characters were being defined and explored, music was being imprinted on young brains, and the emotions on which opera tales ride were being discussed.

“Where’s the bossy girl?” asked Farrell, holding up a small cutout image of Carmen, the gypsy, who orchestrates her own demise. “Is Carmen being a good friend?” she wondered aloud.

Loviah Aldinger, associate director of the Toledo Opera, said Farrell and her work — she’s in demand all over the country to teach, train, and demonstrate — came to local attention during the 2013 opera camp here.

Aldinger found funding from PNC Bank, the Ohio Arts Council’s Arts Partnership Fund, and Judith and Joseph Conda.

This fall’s sessions are a pilot for new outreach Toledo Opera hopes to make a permanent part of its educational operation. Also launching this season is a fall version of its very successful Opera on Wheels program. Typically held in spring, it brings classics by Mozart, Rossini, and Wagner to schoolchildren.

Response from students, teachers, and administrators has been enthusiastic.

Students, accustomed to amplified voices, never fail to react to the power of the singing by trained artists sans mics.

Thanks to funding from the Oswald Foundation, students in five Toledo Public schools are able to share in the drama of the classic Greek myth, Orpheus and Eurydice. In a version tailored by Jennifer Cresswell for K-6, four resident artists are bringing to life the sad tale of the lovers whose failure to follow orders destroyed their marriage and their lives.

Opera on Wheels keeps singers Jennifer Braun, Madeline Harts, LeTara Lee, and Laura Reaper plus accompanist Spencer Miller on the move throughout the region, sometimes setting up and performing two shows in a day, then fielding lively question-and-answer sessions.

Contact Sally Vallongo at: svallongo@theblade.com

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