Thursday, June 2, 2016

Final Productions / Dealing with Stage Fright

Heather Keith, Opera for All Teaching Artist

From now until the end of the CPS school year my schedule is filled with dress rehearsals and show days. When we get to this point, I undoubtedly have a few students come up to me and confess they struggle with stage fright. I think in a society that is preoccupied with standards being met and test grades being perfect I completely understand where these students are coming from. To help my students overcome their fears I am making an effort to remind my students to enjoy the process.  I see them struggle with self-doubt as they prepare to vulnerably put themselves out in front of an audience., something all great performers struggle with. I tell them that what helps me the most is trusting in my cast, trusting that if I get lost the other people on stage will help me find my way back.  That trust is formed in rehearsal and I encourage them to not stress so much about the finished product. Explaining that if you put the work in the rehearsal room and you have faith in the people around you, the product will undoubtedly be there.  

Reilly Students rehearsing their opera

Chase students practicing their dance

This idea of not living for the product brings to mind something a director once told me about the rehearsal process in general. He said “If you are waiting for the run of the show to enjoy the production you are missing the point. The production is created in the rehearsal process; the actual show is anti climatic. “ I feel this is so poignant when applied to the work Opera for all does.   While the shows are important they are not nearly as important as the bonds these students are making and the skills they are honing.  I have seen so much growth this year. I have seen shy students face their fears and sing solos in front of their peers and I have seen friendships form where before they didn’t exist. I have seen empathy beyond what I thought possible from a 4th grader. This process has been incredible and while I am confident these students will put on amazing shows that will stay with them, I believe the work they have put in during the accumulation of this year makes a far more lasting mark.  

McAuliffe student waiting for his entrance.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Dress Rehearsals

Sara Litchfield, Opera for All Teaching Artist

Well we are officially in the thick of it with two school performances already done and more to come. At this time of year, I always find that it is very difficult for teaching artists to talk and think about the world outside of Opera for All as our brains are constantly juggling everything from props to song lyrics, dance choreography and blocking. But we are truly blessed to have such a supportive, competent education team from the office who have been present at all of our dress rehearsals and performances helping set up microphones, lights, backdrops, slideshows and anything else that needs to be taken care of so that the TAs are able to focus on the students. 

On the day of the performance, our classes usually come to the auditorium an hour before showtime to warm-up and run through transitions between each class performance. I like to start with a high energy movement activity that engages their entire body while allowing them to be stationary since we usually have a lot of kids in one place. I have found that moving a shake or wiggle from your feet, through each part of your body and all the way up to your head tends to effectively wake them up and raise their energy so that they are excited for what's to come. Then this usually moves into a brief vocal warm-up. 

My mantra throughout dress rehearsals and performances has been Volume, Energy and Focus, the most important of which is very often focus. These students now not only leave this program with an understanding of all of the elements that must come together to make a successful opera, but they now personally understand all of the things that performers are tasked with remembering during a performance like where do I enter and exit? What is my line? What is my cue? Where is my prop? What is my character feeling when I say this line? Where do I go for the dance/ song? Etc, etc, etc. Keeping track of all of this requires a great deal of focus. 

This past Friday, Healy Elementary in Bridgeport successfully completed two performances of their operas. One was for parents and the fourth grade classes while the other was an opportunity for the fifth-grade OFA classes to perform for one another. I could not be more proud and impressed by all of the hard work and dedication that not only the students but teachers and entire school community poured into these operas and the result was truly fantastic. We positioned our classes so that they surrounded the audience when they sang our "Once Upon a Windy City" theme song, which was quite an impressive sound. 

This morning, our two classes at Eugene Field Elementary also had their final performance and I can honestly say their operas were the best they've ever been. Many of the students approached me as I was entering the building with pre-performance excitement and jitters and as I mentioned in a previous blog, they were able to harness their adrenaline and nerves into focused performances. I remember how hesitant and shy many of them were to even stand up in class and read at the beginning of the year and now almost every student loudly stood up in front of an audience and not just read a line but performed. Looking back on their transformations makes me very proud and every one of our students should feel very proud of all they have accomplished.  

Friday, May 13, 2016

Opera for All

Matt McNabb, Opera for All Teaching Artist

I recently had a coworker at one of my jobs ask me how the student recitals were going. And I said, “what do you mean recitals?” We proceeded to have an exciting and eyeopening conversation about what really takes place in the Opera for All program. I explained that these are not just recitals, these are fully scripted and fully staged minioperas performed by the students under our guidance. When people hear what is actually involved in the process of creating our new student operas, they can’t believe something so wonderful exists in the public school system.

Well I am here to tell you that it does exist, and that the program is wonderful! A huge
part of Opera for All is of course about offering a chance to expose students to the magical
world of opera. As teaching artists there is nothing more rewarding than seeing our students
rock out to the overture of “Carmen,” or see their eyes pop open the first time they hear
Brunnhilde’s battle cry!

But Opera for All is also about so much more. It is about teamwork and collaboration. The students quickly realize that in order for a performance to come together as a coherent piece of art, everyone must tow the line, and everyone must contribute. Most rewardingly, the students WANT to be part of this process, and they love sharing their creative ideas and can’t wait to see them take shape in the form of scripts and songs and dances. In Opera for All, we create a culture of trust and hard work and fun, and we strive for excellence in all we do.

Opera for All is about building confidence through performance and other artrelated mediums. Students are allowed to work in the visual arts with scene design and drawing. In fact, we just completed a Tshirt design contest where over 700 students turned in entries to be judged. Through theatre games, performance skill building and creative expression, students are allowed to blossom in ways that they can’t find in other school subjects. Students are allowed to explore their strengths, and many students sometimes surprise themselves at what they can accomplish. The students all come away with a stronger sense of best performance practices, and they understand what constitutes a great performance vs. a mediocre performance. These are skills that will lead to success in many areas of their lives.

Opera for All is about sharing the joy and the necessity of the arts in schools. So many
students don’t have any other outlet for creative expression, and opera time is something that
our students look forward to on a weekly basis. We are greeted with hello’s and highfives
when we enter the classrooms, and it is a great feeling to know that what we do matters!! Opera for All is an essential experience that more and more students need to enjoy!

Our end of the year performances are coming up in the months of May and June. Come and experience what Opera for All has to offer! And, just a special mention Thursday May 5 was the Chicago Opera Theatre gala. The teaching artists had a blast as costumed characters from next season’s operas! A huge thank you to our wonderful parents, Ms. Rhodes and the 4th graders from Disney II Magnet School, who had the awesome privilege of performing “Once Upon a Windy City” and “Hot Dogzilla” to a wonderful audience of COT family, donors and opera lovers. They received a standing ovation, and I couldn’t be more proud!

Friday, May 6, 2016


Sara Litchfield, Opera for All Teaching Artist

Well it's the week after spring break and we are officially in the home stretch!  Our goal this past week has been to fine tune each of our individual performance elements, specifically our songs and dances, and then put all the pieces together with our blocking. Very often this means tediously working through transitions and trying to communicate to students who've never been on stage before how to emote and express their lines. Not an easy task! But it's truly impressive how much of their songs and dances our students remember, especially since we haven't practiced these for weeks while we focused on staging. 

We added some "choralography" or simple gestures to our songs and while a term like this often provokes the image of cheesy show choir jazz hands, adding movements to the music really helps with memorization and usually gives an extra boost of energy to their sound. The next step for our students is memorization because it's much easier to work on acting and expression without a script in your hand and in front of your face. As our class sessions begin to transition into dress rehearsals and consist primarily of running our operas, my hope is that our students will become more and more familiar with what comes next in their operas and all of these things we constantly nag them about like projecting and cheating out will become second nature.

Essentially, I feel like I've done my job when the students no longer need me to make it through their performance. Every year around this time I start to panic and think, "We only have HOW MANY classes before our performance? Will everything come together?" But every year like clockwork, it always does and the moment there is an audience present, suddenly these often quiet, hesitant students become young performers. A little healthy fear and adrenaline can go along way!

Friday, April 15, 2016


Matt McNabb, Opera for All Teaching Artist

Nerves were a flutter as we began the process of staging our operas with the students! The kids have been anticipating this process for months and months. After writing our operas together, and after many script revisions and final read-throughs, the most exciting part of Opera for All took flight.

We began discussing the qualities of a good performance, including cheating out to make sure we face our audience when speaking, and projecting our voices so that even a 100 year old grandmother in the audience will understand every word! After that we reviewed our stage directions, and the students will forever remember the difference between stage right and stage left! Then began the process of getting 25-30 students in each classroom up on their feet and working together to create interesting stage pictures. We also have been able to spend time discussing what the characters are thinking and feeling in each scene of our operas.

We have students playing historical characters, sports heroes, celebrities, cows, cats and even hot dogs! Would you like to see a giant hot dog attack the Willis Tower? Or Daisy the cow start another Chicago fire at Pizzeria Uno? Or how about John Wilkes Booth attempting to re-write history with the use of Silly String? These are just a few examples of the creativity and imagination that will be on display at our opera performances!

It’s very exciting to watch our stories leap off the paper and come to life in front of our eyes. Many students are also incorporating new character elements and new levels and dimensions are added each time we see the students. Add in the choreographed dance numbers and the student composed songs and we are going to have brand new and original operas that you won’t want to miss!! 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Teachable Moments during Staging Rehearsals

Heather Keith, Opera for All Teaching Artist

The time right before spring break is always really exciting in our Opera for All schools. This is usually when we start getting into staging our operas.  There are so many teachable moments in staging a show that are inherent in the process, but this year we wanted the students to be in the director’s chair more than ever before. This took shape in different ways depending on the class dynamic.

At a few schools we let the children build a scene, by deciding where there characters fit in a larger tableau. I found this worked particularly well in large group scenes. This also gave us the opportunity to concentrate specifically on acting in different body levels.  At some schools like Chase, We decided to let the students have more of a say in specific hand gestures and line readings, this way they have even more ownership of the text and are able to dig deeper into more nuanced acting. I was surprised how many of the students have a natural gift for comedic timing, something that I’ve seen the most talented actors struggle with.  I’m very excited to see what ideas stick with the students in this process.

(McAulliffe Students finding their place in a tableau

(McAuliffe student waiting for his entrance)

At Hanson Park, since this is the first time many of the students have been in any sort of play we are concentrating on filling a proscenium stage. The first day of staging went incredibly well, so I know we will be able to layer in more complicated details once we finish the barebones blocking.

(Reilly students "clumping" together in a large group scene)

One of the things that really impresses me about directing young people is how they are able to be complete sponges. When you find that hook to get their attention, they are suddenly all in and it’s amazing what they can accomplish. I’m beyond thrilled to be able to create art with these students and I hope that the shows only get better with every rehearsal.  

Friday, April 1, 2016

Finishing Our Backdrops!

Erin Moll, Opera for All Teaching Artist

This week we finished up our third and final Art Day with our Guest Artist, Dorian Sylvain.  I cannot say enough about how much the students learned from her!  She taught them about her job as a scenic designer and brought in examples of her work for them to look at.  While working on the backdrops, she chatted with the students about proper techniques for holding a brush, applying paint, and even blending and shading colors!

(Guest Artist Dorian Sylvain works with 4th grade students from Disney II Elementary on the backdrop for their opera “Michael Jordan’s Shoes”)

Each class was able to work on their backdrop for three weeks: first designing it, painting it, and then putting on the finishing touches.  

(Guest Artist Dorian Sylvain working with 6th grade students from Disney II Elementary on the backdrop for their opera “Pizza Pizza”)

Students were able to explore their creativity in a different way and were allowed to take ownership in creating the scenery for their shows.  Even students who are not normally as involved were painting and having fun!

Monday, March 14, 2016

Art Days!

Matt McNabb, Opera for All Teaching Artist

The students at Field elementary school were treated to a wonderful surprise last Tuesday morning! Two of our guest artists, Abby and Julia greeted the kids with paint and enthusiasm, and a specially sketched backdrop created for each class based on drawings the students had done the week prior. After a great demonstration from our artists on how to paint with creativity yet frugality, the students dived head first into a world where they were able to create pink high rises, orange roofs and blue/purple/grey skies. Georges Seurat would have been proud.

At Healy and Disney II, our students had the special privilege of experiencing a full­on professional production meeting with our artist Dorian. She shared her sketches and talked about it what it is like to be a set designer in Chicago. Dorian treated the students as her fellow colleagues and it was wonderful to see the students take ownership and pride in their ideas. The students were open­mouthed as Dorian took these ideas and drew sketches on the white boards (complete with perspective), and the ideas came to life. As all the best artists do, Dorian made it look so easy! The kids cannot wait to see their backdrops in two weeks, and they are chomping at the bit to get them painted.

I think what I love most about the Opera for All program is our emphasis on teamwork. The students are seeing first­hand that the process of creating in the visual and performing arts take patience, trust, determination, imagination and above all, collaboration!

I also love that we bring not only music and opera to the students, but also dance and visual arts and acting and directing and design. They truly get a taste of life as an artist, and it’s exciting to be a part of it!

Voice Lessons at Solorio Academy

Emily Cox, Chicago Opera Theater for Teens, Teaching Artist

The students at Solorio have been working extremely hard this past week! We have been continuing our discussion about proper breath flow, proper breathing techniques, negotiating through the passagio and more. The students have been practicing, and have now learned how to set a regular practice schedule. 

The results are clearly showing, both in their weekly lessons and their choral classes. Several of the students have expanded their ranges by half of an octave or more, which has been very exciting and rewarding to see! The students have all been assigned an art song according to their fach, and have been working hard to learn them. Some of the repertoire choices include "Vado ben spesso" by Salvator Rosa, "When A Felon's Not Engaged in His Employment" by Gilbert and Sullivan, and "The Daisies" by Samuel Barber. After learning an initial song, the students will be assigned another for further study in the later part of the semester; they are being encouraged to search through musical databases, websites and other means to find something that interests them personally. They are also being encouraged to audition for solos and shows in and around their community, in order to get used to singing in public. We are hoping to be able to hold a studio recital in late May, so that they can show off their newly-developed voices for all to hear! 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Set Design!

Sara Litchfield, Opera for All Teaching Artist

For the past few weeks, we've been focusing on our choreography and set design, which gives us an opportunity to see another level of our talented students. We very often have some real great dancers and artists emerge who haven't yet stood out in opera class. But as we wrap up these projects, we will be moving into staging our operas and thinking about the dramatization of our stories. 

To prepare for this next step, we created a Prezi for our classes that highlighted the basic ideas about staging and acting like stage directions and thinking about adding "intention" to each line. For each dramatic idea, we had volunteers come up and demonstrate in front of the class. For example, I would give a student a line like "The building is on fire" and first they were instructed to say the line without any emotion or inflection and then we asked the class to give ideas for how our student volunteer can alter their voice, their face and their movements or actions to best communicate the line. I was really impressed with not only our student's acting skills but also their directing ideas. 

I hope that we can continue to draw on our students' directing ideas as we start blocking our show. I think it always helps students not only remember their staging but commit to it when they had a say in the decision behind it. This past week, we passed out scripts and announced our casts. It's always a delight to watch our classes get so excited about their roles and I think this is when they really start to take ownership of their operas. I'm really looking forward to watching their stories come to life in the coming months!

Friday, March 4, 2016

Beauty and the Beast

Beauty and the Beast

This Spring semester,              
Chicago Opera Theater for Teens 
is putting on the production of Disney's "B &B."

Yep, with all the magic and mystery....our teens will sing and dance their way into your hearts.  Plus for an extra special treat, we have invited some of the STAFF of Solorio to dress up in full costume for the spectacular show-stopping number "BE OUR GUEST!"

Please join us on either 
Friday, May 6 at 7pm or Saturday, May 7 at 2pm 
in the Solorio Auditorum/Gym

Monday, February 29, 2016

Music Inspires at Healy Elementary!

Linden Christ, Director of Education and Outreach

Healy Elementary School had an exciting week of music called Music Inspires!   This week long program is provided by Classical Kids Music Education, Oistrakh Symphony Orchestra, and Chicago Opera Theater.  Each year we bring Music Inspires to two of our Opera for All schools. One Monday, the students attend an assembly with two professional actors, a string quartet, and your’s truly!   This week focused on CKME’s production of Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery.   Our task is to help the students relate to Vivaldi and his beautiful music.  Vivaldi was the „Rock Star“ of his day, composing over 600 pieces of music.   We connected Vivaldi’s fame with today’s hit, Hello by Adele.   The string quartet played the music and I sang this song and encouraged the students to sing along with me.   There was an abundance of giggling and then all the students joined in singing „Hello“! On Tuesday, Daniel Grambow, our COT Education Assistant and I visited with all five of the Healy 4th grade classrooms and presented them with a lesson plan focused on their three ‚V‘ vocabulary words, Violins, Venice, & Vivaldi.  We shared a violin that they could touch and pass around, as well as Venetian masks and played excerpts from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and the A Minor Violin Concerto.

One of our teaching artists, Sara Litchfield commented, “ I was really blown away with some of the students reactions to Vivaldi's Four Seasons. One very quiet, thoughtful student named Kenny thought the movement must be about spring because it sounded like the music was growing like plants and flowers to in the spring. Surprisingly, he was not the only one with this response!

On Friday, the students returned to the auditorium to see the full performance of Vivaldi’s Ring of Mystery with the Oistrakh Symphony Orchestra and the professional actors from Classical Kids Music Education.   The students were mesmerized by this event.

One student asked if he could be a donor and donate $50 from his allowance so that other students could experience this program!   

Friday, February 19, 2016

Choreography Days Wrap Up!

Erin Moll, Opera for All Teaching Artist

The last two weeks at Opera For All have been chock full of booty shaking and move making! One of the really phenomenal aspects of the Opera For All program is that students get the opportunity to learn from working professionals in creative fields. Our students have already had the opportunity to work with real live composers, and now for our dance days, students have the opportunity to work with a professional choreographer! It’s so important for them to see that these are jobs that they can someday pursue if they are interested!

(Guest Artist Caryn Ott Hillman with 6th grade students from Disney II Elementary)

During our choreography days, each class had the opportunity to work with guest choreographer, Caryn Ott Hillman, for two full sessions in order to learn the dance for their show. There are six different dance tracks to choose from which were carefully selected to fit the demands of each class’s scripts. Each dance is very unique – my favorite probably being the dance to “Eye of the Tiger” which features boxing moves as well as a bit of hip hop! That song is a perfect fit for McAuliffe 6th grade’s production of “Lincoln v Booth” which features a boxing match between those two historical characters!

(Fourth Grade Students from Disney II Elementary learn to slide like rock stars during their dance “Don’t Stop Believin’”)

One of the best aspects of our dance days is the opportunity for different students to shine. Our students have a variety of talents, and it’s extremely rewarding to see a student who was too shy to participate before really start to move and shake during our choreography sessions! It’s amazing to watch their confidence grow!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Gianni Schicchi!

Sara Litchfield, Opera for All Teaching Artist

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to sit in on the final dress rehearsal for COT's production of Gianni Schicchi, half of the double bill with Poulenc's La Voix Humaine currently playing at the Harris Theater. While Puccini is known for his dramatic operas, I find this piece to be one of my favorite operatic comedies.

Of course many associate this piece with the show stopping aria, “O mio babbino caro,” and the title character has some show stopping music as well, but the true star of this opera is the ensemble that makes up the colorful cast of characters in the Donati family. These greedy relatives of the wealthy and almost deceased Buoso Donati, plot with the cunning and opportunistic Gianni Schicchi to change Buoso's will after they learn that he has left everything to the friars. But in the end, Gianni Schicchi, disguised as Buoso, leaves the best of Buoso's will to himself! Having sung the role of Ciesca before, I know how deceptively challenging the ensemble numbers are in this show and I was really impressed with how the cast moved and sang as a hysterically funny unit while still retaining individual personalities.

Artistic director, Andreas Mitisek, chose to set the opera in a very groovy late 1960s Florence complete with funky furniture and go go boots and Gianni Schicchi was costumed to look like Austin Powers. The backdrop mirrored the constant motion on stage and shifted between a few bright, iconic 1970s patterns. Did I mention the backdrop was bright because it was VERY bright. At times I almost needed a pair of vintage 60's shades! All in all, I really enjoyed the production. Michael Chioldi's portrayal of Schicchi was boisterous yet clever, Emily Birsan sang a gorgeous Lauretta and on multiple occasions, I was laughing out loud. And not only this but it's paired with Patricia Racette's La Voix Humaine? I mean, it's a no brainer. Go see it! 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016


Heather Keith, Opera for All Teaching Artist

Opera for all is back in the swing of things!  The last three weeks we have been editing our script and reviewing our song. I am so impressed with how much the students remembered over break! I also have been noticing a renewed sense of focus at all of my schools. I think everyone has caught the show bug. 

(Student at Chase excited about reviewing her class song)

The editing process was such a great opportunity for the students to start working as more of an ensemble and to learn about compromising individual ideas for the good of the group.  One McAuliffe 6th student, who I believe has the makings of a future SNL writer, had so many great ideas, but not all of them fit into the story his class was creating. I was so proud of him for recognizing the need for compromise in this process and letting some of his best jokes go to make the script better as a whole. 

At Reilly I’m seeing some great improvement in the way the students communicate with each other. Reilly is such an amazing school and the students are always well behaved, this semester I am seeing the students have discussions with each other about the plot of their script in a much more collaborative way. Real teamwork is being implemented at Reilly.

Since this is my second year at Chase, I’ve set the bar pretty high for the students there and they are doing a great job of meeting my expectations. Through out the editing process they were supportive of each other’s ideas and they were very productive in fixing plot holes in their scripts. I feel the quality of show the Chase students will be performing this year is at a much higher than last year and I couldn’t be prouder.

 Also I am very excited to announce OFA added a brand new school: Hanson Park Elementary! I am so excited to be working with such a talented group of students.

Last week at Hanson Park we reviewed famous Chicago and Illinois historical figures. This week we chose several of those figures and created our basic plot. The students also wrote lines for themselves, which we will integrate into a script.  Students not only wrote their own dialogue, but also drew pictures to help communicate their ideas of settings and who their individual characters will be.

(Picture drawn by a 4th grade Hanson Park student of the Science and Industry Museum, 
which is the setting of one the operas)

(Character drawing by a Hanson Park 4th Grade student)

(Character drawling by a Hanson Park 5th grade student)

(Dialogue example for a 5th grade Hanson Park student.)

As you can see, the students at Hanson Park are incredibly creative! The process of creating an opera in one semester may seem daunting to some, but if the last 2 weeks are any indication, I think Hanson Park is going to have two amazing student produced operas!