Thursday, March 10, 2011

COT for Teens performs at the Gala

Chicago Opera Theater honored COT for Teens on Sunday, March 6th at their annual Gala at Carnivale. Over the last decade, Chicago Opera Theater has worked with hundreds of teenagers to provide an artistic outlet. The program originated through individual partnerships with two high schools, Curie on the south side and Schurz on the northwest side. Students from these two schools were integral to the creation and performance of COT’s annual Education and Outreach productions, notably Benjamin Britten’s Noah’s Flood in 2001.

The program codified six years ago when COT entered into a partnership with the City of Chicago’s After School Matters initiative, now drawing in students from CPS high schools all over the city. Each year, students from diverse backgrounds and neighborhoods come together to study and create opera. For some, this marks the first experience with singing and opera as they attend schools with no music or art offerings. And for others, it is an extension on a young interest in singing. Regardless of background and experience, all of these students come to us with eagerness to explore a new art form and spread their wings. For three hours a day, three days a week, the COT for Teens students immerse themselves in what we love: opera.

The program culminates in the spring with their own production. This year COT For Teens will present a condensed version of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, an excerpt from which you will hear shortly. This program instills artistry and appreciation in not only tomorrow’s opera-goers, but tomorrow’s opera stars, as well. 10 of the 30 COT for Teens students were featured at the Gala under the direction of Christopher Richard and Marta Johnson.

The transition that each student goes through from the beginning of the program- where some are completely unfamiliar with opera and singing- to performing in a production that would make even the toughest critic get on their feet, is astounding. And interpersonally, the students grow, too. Our students gain confidence in themselves and take great pride in being part of such a special team. The typical after school ritual of TV is replaced with this incredible creative outlet that is inspirational.

Every year a handful of our students decide to pursue careers in music. Our alumni have gone on to schools such as the Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, DePaul University and even Eastman School of Music in New York. And regardless if they pursue music as a career, each of these amazing students come out of our program with greater self-respect and confidence--qualities that will serve them for the rest of their lives.

One of the high school performers texted this message that night to director, Chris Richard. "Thank you so much for tonight!!!! It was truly an inspiration and a reminder as to why I want to be a musician! This is a night I will never forget and I am extremely grateful for the opportunity! Tonight truly was the greatest experience I've ever had!"

Friday, March 4, 2011

Advice to Artists

Lisa Golda, COT Teaching Artist

Artists often hear the refrain: write/paint/act what you know. The theory behind the admonition is that it takes a gifted performer or other artist to interpret and translate a life experience that they themselves have never had.

This year, Opera for All students are proving this sage artistic advice to be correct with their incredible investment in this year's process and the authenticity of the piece they have created. Our students have written the words and music for their own opera, "School Rules", as well as created large props for the production. In the past, we've taught them excerpts from classic operas and classical songs which were set in a script that retold an operatic libretto at a kid level. They enjoyed this, but we spent a lot of time making connections for them between historic material and its context in the opera we were studying, and how this might be relevant to them, today. This was sometimes difficult for our younger students. Our new approach has made so much difference in the way the students approach the project! Their enthusiasm and excitement is positively amazing.

To begin, the late great Mary Scruggs of Second City worked with our students and teaching artists to create lyrics to songs based on our central themes: legacy, culture, and heritage. One of COT's mainstage operas this season, Machover's Death and the Powers, addresses these concepts by telling the story of a man who immortalizes himself after death by placing his consciousness in a machine.

Our students made these heady themes their own by translating them (with help of inquiry questions) into situations and lyrics they could understand: treasures and heirlooms brought from home; foods and clothing, which can be a part of cultural heritage; and things that happen in school, such as lending advice to younger classmates, disobeying the rules, and other interactions that can contribute to the legacy one leaves behind. The theme of legacy has been especially poignant given that Mary passed away suddenly. The children seem to understand that her legacy to them is, in part, the lyrics they wrote with her.

These charming songs, which include an ode to pizza, a chocolate milk group number, and groovy tune about trendy clothes, were then set to music by the kids with the help of talented teaching artist and composer Adam Busch. Next, they created props; in this case, giant costumes of food and family treasures designed by visiting artist Sonja Henderson. Their excitement as they made connections between the props and their song lyrics was wonderful! Building their opera from the ground up has made them incredibly invested in the project.

We're almost done teaching all the students the songs from other schools; each class has contributed about two songs to the project, which means that they then have to learn six more that students at other schools wrote (four schools are participating in writing the opera). Their curiosity about the other students' work is evidenced by their focus when we are teaching them the songs; they really appreciate that the music and words they are learning are a "work of art" because they have put in that work themselves. They respect the process accordingly.

As we've taught the rest of the songs, we've let the students know the context for their work in the opera libretto, which was conceptualized by teaching artists Kim Chin, Linden Christ, and Lisa Golda, with input from our intern Anna Solomon. Based on this discussion, Lisa wrote a few short dialogue scenes to tie all the students' songs together into a "day in the life" of a student following a TA brainstorming session, using ideas from cut songs when possible. Now we will complete the process by staging and directing the opera with our young performers, who can hardly contain their excitement about this final step. The kids will also learn two dances.

The kids are overcoming natural shyness and clamoring to audition for solos. They are suggesting staging ideas to us. They are creating artwork to be used as a t-shirt design for the show. The more we allow them to direct the process, the more initiative they seem to take. Their whole-hearted participation, demonstrated with classroom focus, laughter, joyful singing, questions about teaching artists who are not present that day, and devotion to the tasks we are presenting them with, is a joy. They are writing/acting/singing/drawing/dancing what they know, and in the process, learning that opera can be a relevant and accessible art form, which is one of our curriculum goals. I can't wait for the day that "School Rules" opens!