Thursday, December 13, 2012

Chicago Opera Theater for Teens

Chris Richard, COT for Teens Teaching Artist
What a way end the semester... with a trial!  A Trial By Jury - The Gilbert & Sullivan one act operetta, that is!

On December 7 & 8 the Chicago Opera Theater for Teens group performed at The Chicago Temple.  The students did a great job and Marta and I were very pleased.  We had not attempted doing an entire opera, and this was a perfect fit.  The one act opera lasts about 35 minutes and there is no dialogue - ALL MUSIC.  We didn't have to cut a thing.  The show provided wonderful opportunities for some of the students to really shine with individual roles.  We double cast the show to give as many solo opportunities as possible. 

The cast of characters included:
The Plaintiff (Angelina), a lovely soprano role sung by Genna Simon and Morgan Holmes
The Defendant (Edwin), a scoundrel of a tenor role sung by Marcellus Burt and Torin Brown
The Judge, a comic baritone role perfect for Sakhary Prayer and Brando Crawford
The Counsel, an empathetic tenor role sung by Xxavier Jenkins and Andre Cardine
The Usher, a bass role split between Marc Morey and adapted to fit a mezzo Ruth Odukoya
Both casts did an excellent job!
This term went rather smoothly. The show being a little shorter then we have attempted in the past seemed to let us all breath a little and allowed everyone to really feel comfortable in their parts.  We decided to let the students have a huge part in the costuming.  We all batted around a couple of ideas on how we could dress.  The possibilities were endless, but ultimately we decided to let every individual come up with a kind of 'iconic' societal character - i.e. we had a cowboy, a monk, a hippie, a ballerina, a volleyball player, a karate student, and so on and so on....  The students really took to mostly coming up with their own ideas and I think that gave them a sense that this whole was really about them!  As we delved into the staging we reminded the students of the character choice and guided them to react to the situations with appropriate body language for their particular character.  If you weren't able to come to one of the performances you missed some hilarious moments!
I think every single student grew from this experience.  Marta and I could hear the strides the students made vocally and certainly their acting and self awareness abounded.  We are proud of them all!!!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lyricist Week at Opera for All

Alyssa Sorresso, COT Teaching Artist and Lyricist

What a whirl-a-wind of a week! As the special guest lyricist, I visited almost all our program sites, working with 14 different classes on their songwriting skills. It was a TON of fun to see where all my fellow teaching artists are facilitating as well as meet all their fantastically talented students!

So, let's talk about method. My background in lyric writing stems from creating songs that originate from narrative writing and scriptwriting: to put in it simpler terms, I normally write the story and/or script first, and allow that material to inspire my songs. In the case of Opera for All, we are primarily working with outlines and budding ideas of story lines which poses a different challenge: write a song and form the majority of the script around it. 

My partner teaching artists were all very helpful in getting as much material prepared for my workshop as possible.  My goal was to address each class with a personalized songwriting workshop, generating a song that would fit in with the main idea of their opera.  Additionally, since many of the workshops were in the beginning stages of developing story lines, I wanted to help flush out the plot and characters.  This way, the resulting song would either introduce the main conflict, help it move forward or resolve it. Having a structured and specific approach to songwriting is the key to a more fun and effective workshop for the students!

The first site I visited was the St. Vincent de Paul Center (SVDP) with teaching artists Justin and Bryna. Their two classes were focused on creating a song about Makin' Magic Happen. Since their students were a variety of ages, I decided playing an active game called Magician would help get them thinking about Magic on the same level. After the game, we split into small groups and wrote verses responding to questions about Magic and how the characters in their opera might feel about Magic. The workshop at SVDP was the most challenging in that we didn't necessarily have a story line to work with, but through working on the song, the students started to brainstorm ideas they wanted to have in their performance. 

Next up was Marillac, another after-school program with TA's Lisa and Justin.  Lisa and Justin face a similar situation as SVDP in that their group had the seed of an idea for their opera; their classes were inspired by a scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey. They invented a situation about a girl who travels through a black hole to get away from her parents.  I decided to modify my workshop plan as I had heard Marillac's students loved playing an improvisational song game, and were quite good at coming up with lyrics on the spot. We used this game as a starting point for singing about/discussing the opera's plot, as well as having the students freestyle about traveling through a black hole from the viewpoint of the girl. 

Our first class did a super job at this game- they were so good and so focused that we played throughout the entire class time. The second group was a bit more to handle, so I switched it up by breaking them up into 3 small groups.  We assigned each group a part of the song to focus on and for which to write at least 2 verses. I had three girls who were not only best friends, but amazing lyricists! We tackled the beginning of the song, before the girl goes into the black hole, and the reasons why she ran away from her parents.  Then all the groups shared with each other in the end, even adding on blocking for their song! They were really engaged in the process. 

My final classes of the week was at Hampton with Lisa and Richard.  These classes had done a lot of brainstorming already on the plot and characters.  Beforehand, Lisa and I came up with what song we wanted each class to write.  Since these students are in-school, we were able to do a little more in terms of teaching the actual structure of a song and defining lyric-writing concepts such as how verses support the chorus, what it means to scan you rhythm and how to choose a rhyme scheme. 

Following a general overview of songwriting, we then mapped out our song from beginning to end. The students decided on what important details to include in order to help the audience understand the story. For example, Ms. Ochoa's class wrote a song about the Sacred Garden on the Planet Zyrdek, sung by the Beardnuggets, Space Doggies and the Gardeners, all governed by Princess Roseberry. We decided what would be in the garden, how the characters felt about their garden, why it was important to them and who they were tending it for.  Small groups each took parts of the song to write a 4 line, rhyming verse containing the information.  I loved how creative they were with the different species of plant that were in the garden- particularly having a Golden Flower that was in the center of the garden, and therefore the most important plant.

To the 6th graders in Mr. McFarland's class I put the biggest challenge. Their song introduced the characters in Hampton's opera about the Sun going Supernova, and Earth choosing 8 specialists for a mission to the Planet Zrydek. Instead of just 4-line verses, I tasked the students with writing 2, 4-line rhyming verses (8 lines in all) that introduced each specialist, included information about what they did for a living, how they felt about the mission and what they hoped to accomplish.  I have to say, I was really impressed with the quality of their work! 8 lines is a lot to write in 25 minutes, but the students put their heads and talents together to write some very clever lyrics:

I still have Clinton to visit as well as leading my own workshops at Chase and Reilly in a songwriting adventure.  I'm excited to keep experimenting with the songwriting process to get the best results for every site-- I know the students will continue to be a huge source of inspiration!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

All Students see an Operetta, Knightly News!

Linden Christ, Manager of Education and Outreach and Founder of Chicago Opera Playhouse
Every year, all of our schools look forward to seeing an operetta or musical at their school performed just for the students!   It is not just for the Opera for All (OFA) students, but a rare experience that the entire school gets to share.  This year, Chicago Opera Playhouse performed the brand new operetta, Knightly News by Jonathan Stinson.  The OFA students worked several weeks with their teaching artists to practice the finale chorus which they joined in singing with the professionals at the end of the show.   School pride was bubbling over for the students when they were able to perform in front of the whole school.    Their schoolmates were proud of them and equally as enamored by the opera.

Providing students with the opportunity to see an opera in their own school setting is very rewarding.  The students are comfortable and enjoy the performance wholly.  No one was able to keep quiet the entire time, but were chattering quietly about their favorite part, the storyline, and what they thought was funny.  For many of the students, this was their first time to see an opera and will help prepare them to watch their peers in the Opera For All program at their Spring opera performance.  

The partnership between Chicago Opera Theater's Opera for All program and Chicago Opera Playhouse is one I hope continues as it enriches the students' and actors' lives equally.  
About the Show:
Knightly News is an operatic news broadcast of the woes of Prince Charming and his Tri-kingdom state of affairs, including his own search for a princess, a missing Grandmother, and frighteningly strong winds that are blowing down houses in the land. This fun-filled show had the entire student body talking about fairy-tales and humming melodies for weeks to come!

The students favorite parts included the Wolf playing maracas and interrupting Prince Charming's solo.   Everyone was laughing when the character broke the 4th wall during the chase scene when the students had to protect Little Red Riding Hood & Pyg from that Big Bad Wolf.    They survived with a quick swipe of the slipper thanks to the Wolf that knocked the Prince straight to the floor!

To learn more about Knightly News and to schedule a performance for the children in your life visit: