Sunday, February 04, 2001

Not your mother's opera


Cincinnati Opera's outreach program entices kids with four young singers, wacky set and magic tricks

By Jim Knippenberg
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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Cast members of Cincinnati Opera Outreach on the set of OperaCadabra!: Annisa Hartline, Todd Donovan, Naomi Barban, Mary Poestschke, Phumzile Sojola and Brian Robertson.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        Naomi Barban is not cruel. She wants you to know that. But come Monday morning, she'll send four young singers out on what is likely to become the most grueling tour of their operatic lives: Two shows a day, five days a week, four long months.

        Ms. Barban, see, is Cincinnati Opera's director of education and outreach, a 31-year-old program that sends singers into schools with a 45-minute operatic program.

        It's designed to entertain, sure. But it's also designed to tell kids in kindergarten through sixth grade a bit about opera and, not be be crass or anything, develop future audiences so there's somebody sitting in the seats at Music Hall a few decades from now.

        “Opening opera's door for them,” she calls it.


Magical mystery tour

        Right now, the key to opera's door is OperaCadabra!, a flashy magical mystery tour in which a tenor, soprano, mezzo and baritone belt out about 15 greatest hits — selections from Carmen, La Boheme, Marriage of Figaro, Die Fledermaus and Rigoletto.

        So now you're thinking, yeah, right, a bunch of fifth-graders, they're really going to get into "Quando m'en vo.” Sure.

        Turns out they do, at least the way OperaCadabra presents it.

        That would be in front of a backdrop painted with dancing cows, magicians, floating M&Ms, cows balancing on beach balls, flowers and a wacky clock that goes a step beyond Dali.

        That would be on a set dressed with antique phone booths, bug-eyed puppets, magical hats, a steamer trunk plastered with opera terms that is apparently bottomless because singers keep disappearing into it.

        That would be with a bagful of illusions. Developed by Las Vegas magician Drew Dicostanzo, they include things like pulling a silk scarf out of a rubber udder (yes, there's a moo cow theme going on) or disappearing into a phone booth.

        That would be with a pace so fast it's like opera on steroids. Now, co-creator Brian Robertson has them leap-frogging over each other. Now, they're racing across stage. Now, they're crammed into that trunk, chatting with the bug-eyed puppet.

        “We try to grab their attention and hold on tight,” says Ms. Barban, 33, a graduate of the New England Conservatory, a pianist, singer, piano teacher and “my dream job, arts educator. It's not a job, really. It's a treat.”


The glamorous life

        She estimates 50,000 kids in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana will see OperaCadabra, Alice in Wonderland or Toy Shop, the three shows the company offers this year.

        “There are a few holes in our schedule, so we're not turning anyone away yet, but we're pretty much booked for the season,” she says.

        The season is February through May, but Ms. Barban is looking to expand it: “I'd love to do it September to May, but it's tough to do financially. It's just that I want to reach so many more.”

        The typical outreach show is a self-contained unit where set, costumes, props and portable keyboard are hauled from school to school in a rental truck. The singers are hauled in CO's van, in which they wolf down such glamorous meals as burgers and fries.

        Presentations are 30 frantic minutes of music, and 15 of relaxed questions and answers with singers always finding ways to sneak in the basics — like explaining voice types. “Soprano,” sings Annisa Hartline, way the heck up on the high Cs. “Tenor,” follows Phumzile Sojola. Baritone Todd Donovan and mezzo Mary Poetschke follow suit.

        “To me, this is all about exposure,” Ms. Barban says. “Just letting kids see it and hear it, that goes a long way in developing a lasting appreciation.

        “The beauty of opera is that it incorporates all the arts — music, drama, dance, even the visual arts. That multilevel approach makes it easier for us to go in and stimulate an audience, even if they are quite young. That's because we present an engaging, relevant, poignant opera that any age can enjoy.”


A lot to gain

        The difficult part, she says, is convincing school principals and other decision makers that it is important. “My job is to show them that it is important and that it does relate to their students, and that it's well worth the money they spend.”

        An outreach performance typically costs a school $350, but grants often are available.

        “One of the best things about this program is that it goes both ways — singer and student.

        “I know it's tough on the singers, but it also keeps them energized and gives them some wonderful experience. And part of the project is also professional development for them. We arrange master classes, we try to set them up with coaches and conductors, we have movement classes. There's a lot to gain on their part, too.”

        A lot to gain on everyone's part, she adds. “This city is truly arts-rich. It's unbelievable to me what's out there. You want to develop an appreciation for all those art forms. This is just one step.”
       

        The 2001 Cincinnati Opera Outreach and Education tour begins Monday. Call (513) 744-3462 for information.
       

       



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