Building A Brand New Audience

Lyric Opera of Kansas City sees growing interest in opera.

Photo Courtesy the Lyric Opera of Kansas City and Aaron Lindberg

Göran Gentele, a Swedish actor, director, and opera manager who briefly served as director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York said, “Opera is an 18th and 19th century art that must find a 20th century audience.” The Lyric Opera of Kansas City has taken that adage to heart and is learning how to find that 21st century audience. The faces of that audience may surprise a few people – it’s young children, tweens and teens who find a love for this art form through spring break or summer camps.

The Education Department of Lyric Opera of Kansas City, under the guidance of education director Paula Winans, offers innovative programs designed to further music and arts education in schools and in the community. Paula Winans says this year’s summer camp marks the 21st opera camp. “The original goal twenty-one years ago was to study a main stage opera in-depth. Initially when I visited schools, I would have 45 minutes and there was so much more that I could communicate but time didn’t allow,” Winans remembers. “As a former public school music teacher, I would have my upper elementary kids study Madama Butterfly or La bohème. I still get e-mails from my former students 30 years later who share how much they love opera now because they had the chance to learn the story and the beautiful music. That makes me incredibly happy to know opera is still part of their lives.”

During mid-March, Winans gathered 30 kids ranging in age from elementary to high school to explore the creativity of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. The week-long camp draws returning students including Casey Van Eaton. The 16-year-old homeschooled student was encouraged by soprano and educator Sylvia Stoner to seek out Winans and the Lyric Opera. Van Eaton has been part of summer camps and spring break camps for years. She has even experienced the Lyric Opera’s Opera for Teens program and performed in One False Move, aimed at adolescent girls, which looks at bullying.

Soprano Van Eaton, a pianist too, is also a Ginger Frost High School Honors Artist. This program gives young singers free voice lessons, master classes and cash awards for college. Lyric Opera provides vocal and dramatic instruction for high school students chosen to audition by their vocal music teachers.

“I am more confident in music,” Van Eaton says. “Music is what I’m most interested in. Just this past fall, I attended my first full opera, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It was an amazing experience. I live to sing and my mother would tell you that since I could really articulate it, I have said I want to be an opera singer.”

The campers also get to work with Lyric Opera stage director Linda Ade Brand who instructs in exploring the basics of creating realistic characterizations and story theater techniques. They even have visiting artists such as local professors, professional opera singers and designers and the Lyric Opera’s artistic director, Ward Holmquist.

Shontail Leveringston-Lewis says her daughters Sa’Mya and Amari and she have quickly become fixtures with the opera camps. Lewis says Amari, her older daughter, a fifth-grader, has a voice that she calls a gift. “I knew I needed to find a place where she would be nurtured. In such a short time, we became like a family.” Amari has also been a member of the opera chorus for Carmen and Turandot.

That opera family has been critical for Lewis. “I had a health scare while Amari was in Carmen. I’m not much of a show mom so it was a tremendous blessing when people worried and helped. So it was just a gift to all of us. Now, I watch and know there is great training on being a singer and a good person. We are part of every camp and now Sa’Mya is into her second camp. We encourage music in our house from gospel and pop to opera.” Winans says life-long connections are just as important as developing the voice. “We talk about being a good artist and caring for the body,” she says.

This year’s summer camp will focus on the opera La bohème. “Hopefully, the campers will want to see the main stage production. We give them a lot of behind-the-scenes information. When we have shows that require a children’s chorus, our campers are the first to audition.” The summer family opera will be Little Red Riding Hood, the piece that will be performed in area schools. “We get it up and running during camp,” Winans says. “The campers get to learn how to develop an opera in many ways. It is an action-packed two weeks and we are expecting 70 to 80 campers.”

“I sing just about anywhere I can,” Amari says. “The teachers are nice at camp and it’s fun. If I put my mind to it, I can do anything, including sing opera.”

For information about the Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s educational programming, visit www.kcopera.org

Kellie Houx

Kellie Houx is a writer and photographer. A graduate of Park University, she has 20 years of experience as a journalist. As a writer, wife and mom, she values education, arts, family and togetherness.

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