Schoolchildren shatter opera's illusion of elitism

Down in the bowels of Roosevelt High School, the mice are getting restless. The mice -- and cats, and soldiers, and a steam-train part or two -- are waiting in line to have makeup applied to their faces. The excitement level is high, and there is much chatter and fidgeting: Tonight is the first dress rehearsal for the Minneapolis schools' production of the opera ``Cinderella.''

``You'll have to go much lighter on the water,'' says Richard Stead, wig master and makeup designer for the Minnesota Opera. Perspiration runs down his forehead like rivulets of condensation on a cool glass as he oversees the application of whiskers, button noses, eyebrows, and bright red cheeks. This is Mr. Stead's first experience with ``so many children,'' but he directs his three student apprentices with great aplomb. Eyeing a growing rambunctiousness in the ranks, he adds, ``And you'll have to go much faster, I'm afraid.''

Richard Stead -- with 22 years of wig and makeup experience, part of it with the opera in San Francisco where he recently resided -- is one of a number of professionals working to pull the shroud of effeteness and inaccessibility from opera here by opening it up to the Minneapolis public schools. With a $10,000 grant from the Twin Cities Opera Guild and many hours of preparation, set designers, technicians, vocal and musical directors have guided children, ranging from third graders to seniors in high school, in their productions of Peter Maxwell Davies's ``Cinderella,'' and Mozart's ``Bastien and Bastienna.''

The performances, which have attracted the attention of local media -- including one live broadcast on a high school radio station, and taping for a cable television broadcast -- ended this past weekend. But lovers of opera in Minneapolis are hoping the exercise has kindled a longer-lasting interest in opera and in the arts in general among the 100 students involved.

``I'm convinced the experience will stick with these kids,'' says project director Lyman Smith, a free-lance director who has worked extensively with opera companies in the United States and West Germany. ``We in opera have to start with this age group,'' he adds. ``If we don't, we're not going to have any future audiences.''

Across the US, it is not unusual for secondary schools to produce musicals, or for performing arts organizations to take students to view professional musical productions. But public school interest in opera is less common. Moreover, arts enthusiasts in the schools lament what they consider a double-barreled assault on the schools' performing arts programs: from tighter budgets that have squeezed out many arts electives in recent years, as well as from education reforms that have toughened academic requirements, thus making participation in such electives as orchestra, drama, art, and chorus more difficult.

``Our orchestra programs have fallen on hard times, so this offers the kids an opportunity to do something different and serious,'' says Judy Hornbacher, fine arts consultant for the Minneapolis schools. Music for the two operas is performed by a 35-member student orchestra. The whole production -- from stagehands to star singers -- includes students from 21 of the city's 53 schools. Participants were chosen by teacher recommendation or audition.

Another point of such a project, according to Ms. Hornbacher, is to show children the time, thought, and broad range of talents that go into producing an opera. ``We wanted the students to learn that something like this is not just the performers,'' she adds. ``There are lots of very important people behind the scenes.''

Latika Russell is one student who never made it to the stage, but who learned the importance of the backstage artist through her role as costume designer and makeup artist.

``I learned a lot about the different processes you have to go through before you can actually create something,'' says the 13-year-old from Anthony Junior High School. ``You can't just make [a costume] out of the blue. You have to read the script, and you have to understand the person's character and role in the story line.''

Latika and the other costume designers were supervised by Gail Bakkom, manager of the costume shop at the Minnesota Opera. Other facilities, such as the professional opera's set-building shops, were made accessible to the students as well. Dawn Allan, the show's vocal director and a Minneapolis teacher, says the two student operas required sets that kept in mind ``our limited budget'' and ``quick changes that children would be capable of handling.''

According to Mr. Smith, the professionals involved in the production were surprised by the degree to which students became involved in decisionmaking. ``The kids were a lot more courageous than many professional artists about throwing in their own two-bits' worth -- and that's good,'' he says. ``It gives them a sense of ownership.''

Tim Berry is one student who achieved star billing, through his role as Prince Charming. A captain of the North High School football team, Tim decided to ``branch out to opera'' from the jazz and rhythm-and-blues he usually sings. ``I'd never really thought about opera before, but after this I feel a little more versatile in my abilities,'' he says. And Thara Nelson, a junior from South High School who plays the object of the Prince's search, says she appreciates ``the chance for the public schools to do something really complete.''

As it turns out, the two operas have delighted full evening audiences -- despite frigid Minnesota nights -- and have been viewed by more than 7,000 students at the matinee performances. There is already some talk of repeating the project next year. The project's public success is viewed as a bonus, however, by the professionals who helped stage it. For them, the biggest reward is seeing scores of children learning to put on an opera.

``The aim of all this is not really the production,'' says director Lyman Smith. ``Most important, it's a teaching process.''

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