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.