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.

COT for Teens at Gallery 37

Caryn Ott Hillman - COT for Teens, Director at Gallery 37

I don’t know how this happens, but every semester I feel we have THEE BEST TEENS EVER!!!  Once again, this new collection of teens from different schools, backgrounds and talent levels come together and create an amazing ensemble. 
I was a bit apprehensive about not doing a full show like Guys and Dolls which we did last semester.  It’s true, the teens usually like knowing the show in advance so they can dream up which character they want to audition for.   However, this semester we chose songs from a wide range of musicals and operas so we could offer more variety of styles, genres, and solos to out teens.  This can be a hit or miss because they do not typically recognize the pieces and this can deter some teens from returning or even joining our class.  Thankfully, we once again acquired some fun loving, hard working individuals. 
We started off with Sondheim’s “Weekend in the Country” from A Little Night Music which is extremely fast and extremely wordy.  And like most challenges, the teens love how tricky it is!
Next, we came at them with a surprising twist – “Cell Black Tango” from Chicago.  Yes, a risqué dance number to show our audiences that we are not just a stand-and-sing type of group.  As you can imagine, they love this number the best.  It allows them to be their rebellious selves on stage.  I incorporated the Fosse dance style which was a bit strange at first for the teens to grasp but they are now totally owning it!
The Finale to Act One of Into the Woods is the big animated group number that we wanted to show off if we are chosen to perform at the After School Matters’ City Wide performance.  Again, Sondheim offers up a mouthful of descriptive words in an up tempo piece that is just so much fun to perform.  They learned all the music and choreography in 3 classes! Astounding!!!

This is a diagram of movement formations that the students had to learn in "Into the Woods".   The teens love the choreography!  (Looks a bit like a football play)

We just recently introduced a beautiful ballad that has become our “anthem” for the semester – “Love me As I Am” from Side Show.  This is a musical about Siamese twins that are a part of a circus side show.  Along with their other fellow performers, they want to be accepted for their uniqueness, not shunned.  Isn’t this true for ALL teenagers?!
And last but not least, “Va Pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco.  Yep, they are singing in Italian again.  How could they not fall in love with the richness and the heart & soul of this piece?  Not gonna lie, it is a challenge for them with words they cannot understand and sounds they are not use to making.  Never the less, they really get into the musicality of it all.

All in all, these teens are soaking up all this knowledge like sponges!  We are only half way through our 10 weeks and we have accomplished so much already.  Mr. Richard and I have one more show stopping number to throw at them if they are up for it…