Thursday, August 7, 2014

Summer with Opera for All

Grace McIntosh - COT Summer Education Intern

My experience with Chicago Opera Theater has been nothing short of exceptional! The students' performance of "Jazz on Fire" at Reilly Elementary was a perfect introduction to the Opera for All mission. I jumped right into grading post tests and inputting data from pre-tests, post tests, Fall evaluations, and Spring evaluations. I analyzed this data to create a PowerPoint presentation for our donors that highlights the students favorite aspects of OFA. I created a Shutterfly album to celebrate the 2013-2014 OFA program and show off our students' and teaching artists' hard work.

Preparations for the 2014-2015 program are coming along nicely! The Education Department has been excited to create this year's program around the theme Dinosaurs: A Terrific Tail. Linden, Jess, and I visited the Field Museum to gather facts and construct the lesson plans to accompany the field trip to the Field Museum this Fall. I have also worked on writing the lesson plan and editing the script for Alice In Wonderland. Student Journal assembly will be in full swing soon and the Education Department is ready for the new year!

Thursday, June 19, 2014


Emma Bonanno, COT Teaching Artist Intern

It’s been a whirlwind semester with Opera for All! Over the past several months the students have been putting together all the pieces of their operas – the songs, the dances, the fight choreography, the props, the costumes, the staging – and finally we have arrived at performance time. During this week and next week, students at all six of our schools had or will have their final performances of Jazz on Fire, and boy, are they excited!

It’s always incredible to see how far these shows come and how fantastic the finished projects are. Many of the students begin our program never having sung, danced, or acted. Most of them have never seen an opera, and maybe don’t even know what an opera is. And here they are, a mere nine months later, performing in their very own opera that they have created! It is such a great feeling to see these students take charge of their work the day of the performance and really knock one out of the park.

The rehearsal process in the weeks approaching a performance is many times tedious and stressful, even for professional adult performers. There were times over the past few weeks when morale was low, students and teachers alike were worried and stressed, and it was hard to keep focused. However, when the students were finally able to get the show in front of an audience, everything came together!

For many of these kids, this was the first show they have ever been a part of - the first time they’ve ever felt the thrill of getting up in front an audience and putting on a performance that they, their teachers, their parents, and all of us here at COT can be proud of. These performances are the point at which they finally see how far they’ve come and take ownership of their work, just like true professionals.

Also like professionals, the students learn through their final performances that the show must go on. Everyone, even the most famous actors and singers, has made a mistake on stage at one point or another – and often these mistakes happen much more frequently than we imagine! None of the Jazz on Fire shows came out with every little tiny piece exactly as it was written on the page and rehearsed, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. And judging by the smiles, excitement, and laughter following the performances, I think the students would agree with me!


All Jazzed up from ‘Jazz on Fire’

Bryna Berezowska, COT Teaching Artist

We finished the epic year long endeavor to make learning and creating an opera super fun. This process give students the unique experience of not only performing a show, but actually creating every single little bit of it all by themselves! The students not only wrote their own awesomely detailed character bios, scripts, song lyrics, melodies, but they also designed their own props, sets, and learned some pretty tricky dance moves and cool slow motion fight choreography. The students put all the elements together for an excellent final performance! 

Dominic, a student at Courtenay, was just thrilled and shocked that his drawing made it onto the final T-shirt design. All he could say was ‘wow’! It is quite an honor to be chosen, because all the students at every school will be wearing the shirts for the final performance! All of the hard work and effort that each student puts into creating a show of this magnitude really pays off when they get on that stage and see it all come together. The teachers and audience get into the show, and you can see the confidence it gives the kids.   

The final performances were great successes at both Sabin and Courtenay! Both schools really pulled it together, sang beautifully, dances full out, acted amazingly, and really gave there all in the final show! It was an excellent year all around!
Final Performance at Courtenay

Final Performance at Sabin

Opera for All at Chase Elementary School

Jennifer D'Agostino, COT Teaching Artist  
 We have been having so much fun this semester during our second year of "Opera For All" at Chase Elementary! My team and I are working with the 5th and 6th grade classes of Ms. Quick, Ms. Martinez, and Mr. Borges. We are very excited to premier our performance of "OPERA ON FIRE" Tuesday, May 27th @ 2pm.
Since I usually lead the classes, it's often hard for me to step back and document all of the fun learning moments. Some really great guest visits gave me a chance to use my iPhone and take videos and pictures!
Combat Workshop, led by COT Marketing Manager Whitney Hershberger and her combat partner Mark Penzien, was a session that got our students REALLY excited! It was great to see the kids listening carefully, following directions, and executing real stage combat moves! My favorite part was when one student, Diego, had to pair up with his teacher Mr. Borges! After a well delivered fake punch to his teacher's gut, Diego exclaimed: "This is the best day of my life!" Enjoy a video and some pictures of the day's final product!

Every year, we are impressed with the skills of artist Sonja Henderson. This year was no exception! We are so excited to show off our well-painted Chicago Skyline backdrop, our detailed costumes, and especially our Takis!
Dance day is always received with enthusiasm! This year, choreographer Caryn Ott taught each class a unique dance that utilizes a jazz song. Thank goodness kids are awesome dancers... we only had TWO DAYS to put it all together!
A lot of people may wonder: "How do we compose these fantastic songs with our students?" It's a process that we have really grown to love! After the students write the lyrics our composer comes in to help them develop a melody. Our composer this semester was Justin Callis. You can read more about the experience from his perspective on his OFA blog post.
The Chase kids are so great. They are ready for their performance and we still have 3 weeks left! I have been overwhelmed by the positive support from the teachers, staff, and students, who all get to benefit from having "Opera For All."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Teaching Stage Combat to Elementary Students!!

Mark Penzien, Fight Master and Stage Combat Guest Artist for Opera for All
When my friend, Whitney Hershberger, contacted me about helping her teach stage combat as part of the COT Opera For All program, I was excited to be involved.  When I was told it would be 13 classes of middle-school students, and we’d have only an hour with each class, I panicked a little.  After all, even though stage combat is fake fighting, it is a dance of sorts that is highly choreographed to deliver a good story, and an exciting spectacle, but mostly to ensure safety of the combatants.  The professionals have been training for years or decades.  How could we teach them enough to be interesting, but keep them safe?
Trained stage combatants don’t generally go “all out” with a lot of speed.  If they did, the audience is going to miss most of what happens.  That lack of full speed is also for safety.  What if we went to the other extreme and taught the kids slow motion fights?
So Whitney and I went about choreographing a simple fight that included slaps, punches, pushes, and hair pulls.  (It’s amazing how much fun it is to get into a brawl with a friend when you know neither is going to get hurt!)  Along the way, we discovered how to make the fight interesting:
If it can’t be flashy or fast, make it BIIIIIG!!
I’m not talking a fight with 6 or 7 people at once.  No, I mean wear the biggest, meanest-looking fighting faces.  Choreograph large movements that ordinarily would look clownish.  And encourage vocalizations that are fierce, loud and drawn out.  With the fight slowed down, the audience gets to take in all of the minutiae that usually get mixed together in typical stage combat.
When we got into the classrooms, there was a lot of excitement to be learning (and being allowed) to fight.  Naturally, it was a constant struggle to make sure everyone remained in slow motion and that safety was being respected.  Whitney and I even made sure that safety wasn’t just the first rule of stage combat, but the first three!  “Safety for myself, safety for my partner and safety for those around me.”  Once we had that ingrained, it was a lot of fun for teachers and students alike!
Seeing the students take to the choreography and make it their own was quite rewarding!  Once the movements were familiar, the warrior faces that were donned were impressive.  A beastly face that normally would be comedic took on very serious tones because of the vocality and slowed-down energy of the fights.  I truly worry about the Great Chicago Fire that these students will be fighting in their operas!

COT for Teens at Gallery 37

Chris Richard, COT for Teens Teaching Artist
What an amazing semester we had!  Our teens just ate up everything that we threw at them...and we threw a lot!
This term we focused on a scenes type program - not a full show.  A program such as this is quite common and we explained to them the numbers we chose were from a WIDE range of styles. We were fortunate to have so many good students that we wanted to give as many of them as possible a chance to shine, so we had LOTS of SOLOS!!!  Our program of numbers were easy to transport to various locations, which was great because we performed our program at several locations.  This gave the students many chances to perform, learn to deal with nerves, learn to change performance spaces and the technicalities that go along with all of that.
Our program was as follows:
Ever After, Act 1 Finale from Into The Woods by Stephen Sondheim
Va, penseiro from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi
Cell Block Tango from Chicago by Kander & Ebb
A Weekend In The Country, Act 1 Finale from A Little Night Music by Stephen Sondheim
Who Will Love Me As I Am? from Side Show by Russell & Krieger
We performed all of these selections at The Museum of Contemporary Art along with the other Gallery37 performing groups from ASM.  We also made a jaunt up into Lincoln Park and sang our numbers for the Sunrise Senior Living Center.  The audience there was very appreciative of our sound and bright energy filling the space!
We had visits from a number of members of the COT staff, which is always a welcome and informative diversion from Ms. Ott & I cracking the whip.
After we took our students to the Dress Rehearsal of Queenie Pie, a few of the leads came to visit our classroom. The teens were enthralled with them and had MANY questions for the panel.  The Queenie Pie cast were gracious enough to let our students perform for them too! 
Another wonderful highlight was a visit from some staff and students from Northwestern University.  These students were Music Theater majors and all of them sang a number individually for us.  It was especially inspiring since these NU students are the ‘next level’ of where our students want to be.  We almost couldn’t get them to STOP talking to each other!  It was really great to hear how the NU students transitioned from high school into one of the top universities in the country….and it’s in our own back yard!!!!

Our last performance of the term was for Chicago Opera Theater’s Spring Gala on April 24.  We paired with the Solorio students to perform ‘Va, pensiro’.  I think our students might even call this the biggest highlight of our term.  Our teens performed just as beautifully as the professionals earlier in the evening.  I heard through the grapevine that COT Board President, Henry Fogel was so moved by our teens performance the he snatched the microphone from the emcee to say a few unplanned kind words about our teens…THANK YOU to Mr. Fogel!!!
It seems I say this every term, but it’s true – I am honored to be a part of this program and am in awe of the teens. I am extremely proud of each and every one of them. THEY inspire ME!

COT for Teens at Solorio Academy High School

Michael Roemer, COT for Teens Teaching Artist

Early in the month of April, the Chicago Opera Theater for Teens at Solorio gave their final performance. It was such a joy and thrill to see the students up on the stage as they saw the ten-week program through the end. Some were introduced to opera for the very first time! They performed “Modern Major General” from Pirates of Penzance by Gilbert and Sullivan, “Prologue” from Sweeney Todd by Sondheim, “Va pensiero” from Nabucco by Verdi, “You can't stop the beat” from Hairspray by Marc Shaiman, and “We're all in this together” from High School Musical. We had one senior, Valeria Lopez, who sang “Nel cor piu non mi sento” by Giovanni Paisiello.

This is my second semester working with students at Solorio, and I'm always surprised to see which students step out of their comfort zone and accept the challenges during the program. The final performance marks an important benchmark for all of the teens. They were onstage in front of their parents and in front of their peers, which can be some of the most nerve-racking moments in life. No matter what happened on the stage, mistakes and all, they kept going. They saw it through, and the sense of pride and accomplishment that comes after is quite an amazing thing to see.

The final performance shows only a portion of what goes on during our program. We were very blessed to have many talented professionals come to talk or teach our students about different professional areas surrounding the arts. Performers from the Queenie Pie cast came in to talk with our teens, and they learned about how much energy it takes to be a performer. It was an inspiring moment to see Lil Daddy, Jeffrey Polk, showing the kids a more energized version of “You can't stop the beat” including added cartwheels. Several Chicago Opera Theater staff members came, including Jessica Weber, who spoke to them about building resumes and college preparation. Terry Harper and Jane Hulburt came and talked about their experience in the arts field. Terry awed them with stories from his life and Jane provided a nice perspective on the importance of communication, networking, and opportunities including internships. Earlier in the semester, we brought in Enanna Sheena, a student at Northwestern University pursuing a degree in speech and language pathology. They were amazed to see how the voice works from a medical standpoint.

All of these opportunities, guests, and experiences give the teens important exposure to a large world of possibility. We gave them an opportunity to act on the stage as a different person or learn what it takes to be a different person. Every semester is a challenge and a success story about how the students learn to be punctual, responsible, and energetic as they reach for their goals. Music and opera is a powerful tool that continues to inspire and challenge a future generation. I cannot wait for another semester to see new and returning students and present them with more opportunities and challenges. We return to Solorio with a summer program of Chicago Opera Theater for Teens, presenting The Music Man.

Monday, April 14, 2014

All That Jazz…

Caryn Ott Hillman, Opera for All Choreographer
6 very different CPS grade schools, 13 classes filled with a wide range of abilities, 3 different dance - all to honor the genre of JAZZ!

  With Duke Ellington in our COT season, it was really exciting to offer the opportunity to teach jazz in the classroom!  What a “cool” way to grab their ears but with the blaring brass of Goodman’s SING SING SING, the off beats of Gershwin’s FASCINATING RHYTHM or Tito Puente’s Latin soul in  OYE COMO VA.  (And I gotta say – choreographing all three was a BLAST…A dancer’s dream!)  I had the chance to introduce Tap Dance into the curriculum with the first two because jazz invites you to move your feet to same rhythm as the song’s.  Then, the Latin beat easily translated into moving your hips and cha-cha-ing to the phrases. 

   A lot of the kids totally embodied the COOLNESS of their jazz by adding their own onomatopoeia sound effects to the crash of the cymbal drum, vocal grunts to their more aggressive poses or their drastic volume contrasts between their foot stumps and their toe hops.  Truly,  the proof of them subliminally sensing the complexity of jazz comes alive when they have the opportunity to use their bodies and voices to imitate what they hear!  This is solely why we are here.  To enrich their minds with the creativity that music has to offer.  

     Sadly, as the Guest Artist Choreographer, I only had 2 hours with each class.  It was a quick introduction, throw a whole lot of physical exercise through dance at them, make them do it over and over (they hated me for that part!) and then I had to say good bye.  However, I did experience the characteristics of each classroom, all with very different dynamics. Believe it or not, some of the children that stood out as the most misbehaved became my Dance Captains because of their stellar “dance off” auditions to see who knew the combinations the best. It’s truly mind blowing how the physicality of movement-to-music can ignite the brains to those that appear to be unattached.  Having a daughter that has been diagnosed as ADHD, I know this first hand.  The language I speak best with my own daughter is MOVEMENT.

     I would have loved to have gotten to know each child more intimately, but my job does not allow for as much.  Alas, I received many hugs to know that I gave a gift – the love of dance through the awesomeness of JAZZ!
Students follow Ms. Ott's lead while learning the choreography

Learning Stage Directions

Heather Keith, Opera for All Teaching Artist Intern
After months of brainstorming, writing, and composing our operas are finally taking shape and the blocking process has started! This is probably my favorite part of any production and I think it’s becoming the student’s favorite part as well! It’s amazing to see the transformation that happens to a show once it’s “on it’s feet” and these operas are no different. One major change I have noticed in the early stages of blocking is how none of the students want to sit on the sidelines. Now that there are dances to be danced and fight chorography to be performed no one wants to miss out! 

Reilly students adding in some Taek won do moves to enhance the script
Before blocking was able to begin we took a moment to explain stage directions and the importance of not closing yourself off from the audience.  During a class at Chase, Dr. D'Agostino played a stage direction game, which was really effective in getting the students to understand not only which way to move, but why we move that way.  The students really loved this game and it made blocking later on much smoother.

During this process we have implored the help of the student assistant stage managers and I think this extra responsibility is something the students are really taking pride in.  One of the students I work with at Reilly is on the shy side, but now that she has the ability to be the go-to person for blocking questions, I can see she is coming out of her shell.  As for the rest of the students, it’s great to see what physical attributes they are assigning to their characters.  Each character is starting to have a distinct personality and the more individualized these characters are, the more confident the students become. All the students are pretty invested at the point and that I think is the key to great theater. These operas are going to be amazing and I’m so happy that I get to be a part of this process. 

Student at Reilly Elementary striking a confident pose in the middle of their class composed song

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Guiding Student Creativity into a Piece of Art

Stephen Carmody - COT Opera for All Guest Artist

My role in the program was to introduce the topic and profession of a designer, focusing on sets, costumes, and props for the theatre.  We also had to construct  these elements for each school's physical production.  Given less than 2 hours for each class, I was slightly intimidated.  But after reading the scripts developed by the young students of the program, it was clear I did not need to introduce imagination or creativity; these kids had it. 

My goal was to create a class that would allow the students to be in control and express themselves to design their show.  I merely provided the art supplies and helped with the hot glue gun.   Because every production took place in Chicago, the students were excited to recreate a Chicago skyline for their backdrop.  I came to the first class with a variety of craft materials, research images, and cardboard cut-out skyscrapers. Students quickly cleared the center of their classroom and began to cut, glue, and collage.  Each student created their own building.  Some buildings were representative of real architecture, ("I'm going to make the Willis Tower!") others were fictional versions of the city, ("I'm going to put my name on this building!"). 

It was messy.  Glue dripped, and glitter was poured, but in the end, each student's uniquely creative building was attached together and formed one giant skyline.  The students stepped back and smiled at the work they created together.  Shorty after that initial shock one girl proclaimed, "It's beautiful!". 

I very much agreed.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Queenie Pie Visits Opera for All Students!

Linden Christ - Manager of Education and Outreach

On Thursday, March 13th, our very own Queen Pie visited five of our schools and spoke with 300 of our Opera for All students!   Karen Marie Richardson is passionate about sharing her experiences with children. All of our OFA students attended the dress rehearsal of Queenie Pie at the Harris Theater, but that was on February 11th, so she began each classroom visit by having the students retell the story.   The students asked wonderful questions throughout the day.

How do you scat?
What inspired you to become an actress?
Do you get nervous?
How long did it take you to memorize Queenie Pie?
How do you feel on stage?
What was your audition like for Queenie Pie?

The students loved meeting with Karen Marie Richardson and everyone wanted her autograph!   It was a great day for these young students!    All of our Opera for All schools received a signed poster from the cast.


Monday, March 24, 2014

Composing Music with Elementary Students

Justin Callis, OFA Teaching Artist and Composer

Composing at Chase, Sabin, and Courtenay was a wonderful experience.  It is so nice to get to work with the Opera for All classes I do not normally get to see, and to meet new students.  It was also so much fun to be back at Chase, were so many of the students recognized me and remembered me from last year.  At Sabin, we were able to work in small groups on their music, and each student had an opportunity to contribute to their song.  In fact, we worked so quickly, that by the time we had our second class, I was able to work group by group on singing our whole song, and we left our second class day with the students completely memorized, singing their song loud and proud.  While the Assistant Principal at the school was gracious enough to allow us to utilize her office for that session, I don’t think she quite realized how much noise enthusiastically singing elementary school students can make in a tiny room!  I hope we didn’t disrupt her work too much with their beautiful singing.

Courtenay was an interesting and rewarding challenge.  Each class had written three songs!  Our first class, we worked with the individuals responsible for each song in small groups, picking their brains for interesting melodic ideas to go with their lyrical material.  Our second class, we worked with the whole class, so every participant would feel ownership over the completed material.  It was an incredibly successful endeavor, and I left with a wealth of songs to polish and complete.  Plus, with the guidance of their school music teacher, Courtenay classes will accompany their operas on Orff instruments, so I am hard at work orchestrating!

Working at Chase is always a delight.  The students are enthusiastic, the staff is supportive, and the operas are unique.  We had a ton of fun exploring the Blues scale in our work at Chase, as it really added a nice jazzy touch to their songs.  While the beginning of class could be a bit sleepy so early in the morning, we were always able to wake them up into an excited, energized classroom by the end of the session.  I’m sure their opera will be interesting and exciting in its final form, and I feel very fortunate to have been involved in its creation.  I can’t wait to see the final performance!

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Kids CAN Compose

Julie B. Nichols - Composer Guest Artist at Hampton, Reilly, and Armstrong Elementary Schools

Being a guest artist for OFA was so amazing and rewarding. I must admit I was a little skeptical at first, going into classes where the kids are learning about jazz and opera - two things that are not necessarily at the top of the ‘hip radar.’ But these kids have taken to these art forms like nothing I have ever seen. With incredible guidance from the teaching artists, they have found ways to make these seemingly far away art forms very close to their lives and their musical experiences.

We started off our sessions by listening to all different types of jazz - soul jazz, latin jazz, smooth jazz, funk, etc. I wanted to show the kids that there are no stylistic limits to what they can compose under the umbrella of jazz. Throughout Jazz’s history, it has been influenced and modified by all sorts of different genres and world sounds, which makes it one of the most malleable and fun genres to compose within. Anything is possible! And the kids definitely got that. In one of the Reilly classes,  a student actually asked if our composition could be more like the Cannonball Adderly tune we listened to (Inside Straight, our example of Soul Jazz) I said of course we could! It was thrilling to see the kids listening to the examples and wanting to integrate them into their own writing.

I tried to encourage the kids to reach to the furthest of their imagination in how to build melodies and bring energy to the songs we were writing, while still trying to teach good melodic structure. We assigned the notes of a scale (1-8) to the words of the lyrics they wrote.  Five different kids would give a suggestion then we would all vote on which was the strongest. We would then talk about WHY it was the strongest -- was it easy to sing? Did it end on a one or an eight? Why does that make it sound good? They quickly began to figure out what makes strong, singable, stable melodies and started creating their own.

I’m telling you, these 3rd, 4th and 5th graders ended up writing some pretty darn catchy songs. I was incredibly impressed. They seemed to enjoy hearing what their melodies sounded like, and it made them more excited to put them all together. They loved to get up and dance to their songs, too, which I of course loved! Very often they naturally wanted to start talking about choreography and other aesthetic elements of their operas as we were building the music. I found that very exciting and inspiring, as it was clear the music was helping them visualize their overall creative vision.

I can’t say enough great words about these kids and their teachers, and OFA in general. It’s inspiring to see these kids so hungry to learn about these incredible forms of art and music - both opera and jazz. It gives me hope that those genres will continue to thrive for generations, and maybe one of these talented kids will be the next big star! 

Monday, March 3, 2014

COT for Teens attend Duke Ellington's Jazz Opera!

Dr. Jennifer D'Agostino - COT for Teens, Director at Solorio Academy High School

I have been lucky to have the opportunity to watch the students in Chicago Opera Theater for Teens at Solorio Academy experience new things. Recently, we attended Chicago Opera Theater's Thursday evening dress rehearsal of Duke Ellington's "Queenie Pie."

For many students, it was their first opera. For some, it was their first time downtown. The excitement was evident from the first seconds of our time together. We ordered some pizzas, and took a bus to the event. We had our COT for Teens from 3:30-10pm! As soon as the students came to our program they were buzzing with questions about the day. They all wanted to change from their regular school uniforms into their purple After School Matters t-shirts. It was really fun to see some of them make their t-shirt outfit fancy by curling or straightening their hair, wearing nice pants or skirts, and adding other items of personal style. Our games, song rehearsals, and acting exercises for the day were over-the-top, as all students participated and were having fun, leaving their inhibitions at the door. Mr. Roemer and I had a lot of fun too, because we remembered what it was like to have a new experience, and since we had already seen the first act of "Queenie Pie," we knew they would like it.

We had already discussed and acted out the plot, so the students knew a little of what to expect. We showed them a couple videos that COT was using to advertise the event and we went over concert etiquette. One boy asked me "If I introduce myself to someone, do I shake their hand?" This event was great for them because they had the opportunity to take ownership of their roles as ambassadors of Solorio, Chicago Opera Theater for Teens, and After School Matters. I was so pleased to see them introducing themselves, shaking hands with new people, laughing at funny parts, and reacting to some of the uncomfortable moments.

Unfortunately, we didn't get to stay to the end of the performance, but we did sneak out in enough time to take a couple fancy pictures on the steps of the Harris Theater. Since Mr. Roemer had to take off for a rehearsal for another gig, we were accompanied by our ASM liaison/Solorio teacher: Laura Vaca, Solorio's choir teacher: Andrew Sons, and Solorio's band teacher: Madeleine Mollinedo. I can't wait for our next field trip to Autumn Green Retirement Center on Monday, March 31st, where the kids will put on their own performance! 

350 Opera for All students attended Queenie Pie Opera!

Sara Litchfield - Assistant Teaching Artist

On Tuesday, February 11th, all six CPS schools participating in the Opera for All program hopped on 12 busses and came to the Harris Theater to watch a dress rehearsal of COT’s production of Duke Ellington’s jazz opera Queenie Pie.  For many, if not most students present, it was their first experience going to the opera and I was thrilled to see that some students even came dressed up.  Before entering the theater, our classes set up camp on the various levels of the lobby for an indoor picnic and played acting games with the teaching artists.  Many of them were mesmerized by the neon lights and massive production posters displayed throughout the lobby.  Upon seeing a particular picture of an elaborately costumed ballerina, a young lady from Armstrong Elementary asked me, “Is that Queenie Pie?”

Once everyone found their seats in the balcony, Linden Christ, talked a bit about the composer, the plot and reviewed proper audience etiquette.   Due to the CPS school day release time, we were only able to see Act I.  I personally felt that the music, the dancing, the costumes, set and in particular the fantastic singing of this incredible cast perfectly embodied jazz and the vibrant life of the Harlem Renaissance.  This was a very unique operatic experience for me because there was spoken dialogue throughout and the usual coloratura or soaring legato phrases were replaced with scat and crooning.  It might have been a perfect introduction to the art form for our students because the operas they are writing also include dialogue and songs that are much more reminiscent of popular music than traditional opera. As is the case in many operatic tales, Queenie Pie dealt with some mature subject matter, especially dealing with race.  One particular character advocated the use of skin whitening or bleaching products so that African American girls would not have to be so “dark”, which I could see made a few girls in my area of the balcony uncomfortable.  I was pretty relieved that this character was then quickly established as the antagonist.  There were also a few, as the kids described them, “gross, mushy scenes” with kissing and light sexual innuendo.  But to be perfectly honest, the raciest material in the opera is mundane next to certain ads during the Super Bowl or subject matter of many network TV shows that air after 7pm.  We encouraged our partner teachers to have the students write about the opera in their journals and the class period following their visit to the theater, we prompted a class wide discussion about the opera where kids were encouraged to share their opinions in a safe, artistic environment.  I found that overall the students came away with really broad perspectives of the opera both appreciating the talented performances and exciting music while still intelligently considering any content that prompted emotional responses, whether good or bad.  Isn’t that what art is truly about?  Something that makes you think, that takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to consider the world from a different perspective.  I can only hope that this experience will inspire our students to continue to seek out art with open ears, eyes and minds.