Friday, May 27, 2016

Dress Rehearsals

Sara Litchfield, Opera for All Teaching Artist

Well we are officially in the thick of it with two school performances already done and more to come. At this time of year, I always find that it is very difficult for teaching artists to talk and think about the world outside of Opera for All as our brains are constantly juggling everything from props to song lyrics, dance choreography and blocking. But we are truly blessed to have such a supportive, competent education team from the office who have been present at all of our dress rehearsals and performances helping set up microphones, lights, backdrops, slideshows and anything else that needs to be taken care of so that the TAs are able to focus on the students. 

On the day of the performance, our classes usually come to the auditorium an hour before showtime to warm-up and run through transitions between each class performance. I like to start with a high energy movement activity that engages their entire body while allowing them to be stationary since we usually have a lot of kids in one place. I have found that moving a shake or wiggle from your feet, through each part of your body and all the way up to your head tends to effectively wake them up and raise their energy so that they are excited for what's to come. Then this usually moves into a brief vocal warm-up. 

My mantra throughout dress rehearsals and performances has been Volume, Energy and Focus, the most important of which is very often focus. These students now not only leave this program with an understanding of all of the elements that must come together to make a successful opera, but they now personally understand all of the things that performers are tasked with remembering during a performance like where do I enter and exit? What is my line? What is my cue? Where is my prop? What is my character feeling when I say this line? Where do I go for the dance/ song? Etc, etc, etc. Keeping track of all of this requires a great deal of focus. 

This past Friday, Healy Elementary in Bridgeport successfully completed two performances of their operas. One was for parents and the fourth grade classes while the other was an opportunity for the fifth-grade OFA classes to perform for one another. I could not be more proud and impressed by all of the hard work and dedication that not only the students but teachers and entire school community poured into these operas and the result was truly fantastic. We positioned our classes so that they surrounded the audience when they sang our "Once Upon a Windy City" theme song, which was quite an impressive sound. 

This morning, our two classes at Eugene Field Elementary also had their final performance and I can honestly say their operas were the best they've ever been. Many of the students approached me as I was entering the building with pre-performance excitement and jitters and as I mentioned in a previous blog, they were able to harness their adrenaline and nerves into focused performances. I remember how hesitant and shy many of them were to even stand up in class and read at the beginning of the year and now almost every student loudly stood up in front of an audience and not just read a line but performed. Looking back on their transformations makes me very proud and every one of our students should feel very proud of all they have accomplished.  

Friday, May 13, 2016

Opera for All

Matt McNabb, Opera for All Teaching Artist

I recently had a coworker at one of my jobs ask me how the student recitals were going. And I said, “what do you mean recitals?” We proceeded to have an exciting and eyeopening conversation about what really takes place in the Opera for All program. I explained that these are not just recitals, these are fully scripted and fully staged minioperas performed by the students under our guidance. When people hear what is actually involved in the process of creating our new student operas, they can’t believe something so wonderful exists in the public school system.

Well I am here to tell you that it does exist, and that the program is wonderful! A huge
part of Opera for All is of course about offering a chance to expose students to the magical
world of opera. As teaching artists there is nothing more rewarding than seeing our students
rock out to the overture of “Carmen,” or see their eyes pop open the first time they hear
Brunnhilde’s battle cry!

But Opera for All is also about so much more. It is about teamwork and collaboration. The students quickly realize that in order for a performance to come together as a coherent piece of art, everyone must tow the line, and everyone must contribute. Most rewardingly, the students WANT to be part of this process, and they love sharing their creative ideas and can’t wait to see them take shape in the form of scripts and songs and dances. In Opera for All, we create a culture of trust and hard work and fun, and we strive for excellence in all we do.

Opera for All is about building confidence through performance and other artrelated mediums. Students are allowed to work in the visual arts with scene design and drawing. In fact, we just completed a Tshirt design contest where over 700 students turned in entries to be judged. Through theatre games, performance skill building and creative expression, students are allowed to blossom in ways that they can’t find in other school subjects. Students are allowed to explore their strengths, and many students sometimes surprise themselves at what they can accomplish. The students all come away with a stronger sense of best performance practices, and they understand what constitutes a great performance vs. a mediocre performance. These are skills that will lead to success in many areas of their lives.

Opera for All is about sharing the joy and the necessity of the arts in schools. So many
students don’t have any other outlet for creative expression, and opera time is something that
our students look forward to on a weekly basis. We are greeted with hello’s and highfives
when we enter the classrooms, and it is a great feeling to know that what we do matters!! Opera for All is an essential experience that more and more students need to enjoy!

Our end of the year performances are coming up in the months of May and June. Come and experience what Opera for All has to offer! And, just a special mention Thursday May 5 was the Chicago Opera Theatre gala. The teaching artists had a blast as costumed characters from next season’s operas! A huge thank you to our wonderful parents, Ms. Rhodes and the 4th graders from Disney II Magnet School, who had the awesome privilege of performing “Once Upon a Windy City” and “Hot Dogzilla” to a wonderful audience of COT family, donors and opera lovers. They received a standing ovation, and I couldn’t be more proud!

Friday, May 6, 2016


Sara Litchfield, Opera for All Teaching Artist

Well it's the week after spring break and we are officially in the home stretch!  Our goal this past week has been to fine tune each of our individual performance elements, specifically our songs and dances, and then put all the pieces together with our blocking. Very often this means tediously working through transitions and trying to communicate to students who've never been on stage before how to emote and express their lines. Not an easy task! But it's truly impressive how much of their songs and dances our students remember, especially since we haven't practiced these for weeks while we focused on staging. 

We added some "choralography" or simple gestures to our songs and while a term like this often provokes the image of cheesy show choir jazz hands, adding movements to the music really helps with memorization and usually gives an extra boost of energy to their sound. The next step for our students is memorization because it's much easier to work on acting and expression without a script in your hand and in front of your face. As our class sessions begin to transition into dress rehearsals and consist primarily of running our operas, my hope is that our students will become more and more familiar with what comes next in their operas and all of these things we constantly nag them about like projecting and cheating out will become second nature.

Essentially, I feel like I've done my job when the students no longer need me to make it through their performance. Every year around this time I start to panic and think, "We only have HOW MANY classes before our performance? Will everything come together?" But every year like clockwork, it always does and the moment there is an audience present, suddenly these often quiet, hesitant students become young performers. A little healthy fear and adrenaline can go along way!