Growing up in a musical family, Michelle Henderson and her siblings would rummage through their mother's "costume box," dress up in elaborate outfits, and perform after-dinner opera productions for the family. They would sing made-up words and imitate opera characters from cartoons.
Today, years later, the costumes may be boxed up, but the music producer's passion for opera is still very much alive.
She has transferred that enthusiasm into a new CD and teacher's guide - "The World's Very Best Opera For Kids ... in English!" She hopes popular arias in such operas as "The Barber of Seville" and "Madame Butterfly" will inspire teachers to lead their classes in a singalong, stage a concert or opera production, or simply pique the interests of young students.
"Everybody recognizes these melodies," says Ms. Henderson. "It might come from a pizza commercial or minivan commercial, but it's a very historic CD.
"We took away the intimidation factor. You don't need to know when a composer was born, or when he died, or even where or when the original opera premièred. What you really need to do is listen to the music and if it touches your heart, then it can become part of your life."
At a time when schools are facing cutbacks in the arts, Henderson says the CD serves as a tool for both music instructors and those not so musically inclined.
"As music teachers are being replaced by general classroom teachers, it's now up to the third-grade teacher who teaches social studies, physical education, and science to also teach them music," says Henderson, also the president of The Children's Group, a Canadian-based company that sells family-friendly DVDs, CDs, and books.
The 48-page teacher's guide, for Grades 2 through 8, features short synopses of the operas, sheet music, and a range of activities from clapping to the rhythms to singing to five karaoke tracks. One section examines opera's influence on modern movie composers. The music played by brass instruments in the "Star Wars" theme, for instance, are similar to those in Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries."
When music teacher Avery MacLean sat down to write the guide, she wanted to dispel the notion that opera is just about a fat lady in horns. "I wanted to challenge a few of those stereotypes and provide more access," says Ms. MacLean. "A guide like this is not an in-depth investigation into individual operas. It's light, but it provides a number of ways of getting into opera."
For instance, MacLean suggests that teachers and students watch the opera on DVD to see how the set design, costumes, and lighting contribute to the story, or even go to an opera to experience the story firsthand. The only one that isn't recommended for all ages is "Rigoletto" because of its adult themes.
To give young people a richer experience, MacLean writes about the broader context of the operas by including the history of the composers, how opera influenced Europe in the 18th and 19th centuries, and interesting tidbits about each opera. The guide provides a rich background, but the karaoke tracks will give students the confidence to sing along, says MacLean.
"If you see kids watching their music videos, they sing along with the singers. So why on earth wouldn't they do it with an opera song they have fallen in love with?"
While putting together this CD, Henderson enlisted the support of the Washington Opera, the Chicago Lyric Opera, a handful of educators, and a radio programmer for BBC radio. During the process, she had her share of critics.
"Opera purists did not believe that we could excerpt from the context of the opera, and [they also felt] that the only way to present opera for children is in its original language. But if you don't know all the background behind it, you can appreciate it for the wonderful melody and fun lyrics that they are."
Henderson says the CD will appeal to adults as well. After listening to the arias in English, she has a new understanding of them. "I never knew that in the Handel opera "Xerxes,' [the Largo] was a love song to a tree," she laughs. "I just thought it was a classic love song. It changed my emotional connection with that aria."