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Madame Butterfly Takes Flight: Kids Discover Opera

Photo: Janet Moore

For decades now, opera houses have tried to attract new fans to an art form that’s historically drawn a wealthy older crowd.  

The English National Opera sends whole orchestras into schools – hoping to wow kids.  In Knoxville, the opera hosts cocktail parties where performers mingle with guests and break into song.  
The Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville has tried several tactics to win the hearts and minds of people under 60.

Madame Butterfly tells the tale of a 19th century American sailor who marries a 15-year-old girl in Japan –even though he intends to head home and find a real wife in the States.  Three years later, he returns with Kate to claim the child he fathered with Butterfly.  It might seem an odd story for 21st century kids, but Ash Lawn Opera invited a hundred of them to its dress rehearsal.

The key to winnings kids’ interest was a process that goes on year round, in partnership with libraries, schools and summer camps.  Teachers spend time getting kids comfortable with something new.

“Why do opera singers sing with the vibrato? Thank you, thank you.  If you’re singing with vibrato, I pretty much know you’re singing opera.”

He shows them video clips of opera from around the world, and guides them in proper audience conduct.

“You might think it’s weird, but you probably shouldn’t laugh or giggle even if it seems really strange to you, and it will seem strange, I guarantee you. “

And he preps them for the story they’re about to see on stage.

“Even though Mr. Puccini, the composer, was from Italy, there’s an American song that he put into the opera to sort of remind the audience of America. What's the most American song you can possibly think of?  If you guessed the Star Spangled Banner, I would agree with you. “

After a class near home and a class at the theater, they have dinner and meet kids from the cast. 12-year-old Jada, who favors hip hop, is getting excited.

“I think it’s going to be kind of cool, because I’ve never been here before or to an opera show, so I’m ready to see what happens.”

Already, she’s intrigued by the plot.

“I think it was really sad.  I was really shocked that he came back with another wife, but I want to see how it plays out.”

10-year-old Catherine and 12-year-old Dante are also sucked in by the story and the music.

“It’s different from what most people listen to these days. “

“It really intrigues me. It makes you feel like you’re connecting to the characters.”

And 11-year-old Taleja won’t rule out doing the diva thing herself.

Ash Lawn’s artistic Director, Michelle Kreisel, also plans to stage My Fair Lady using the same cast.

“We do a musical every year as a way to get a broader audience, we produce the musicals with opera singers and an opera orchestra, no amplification and see that as sort of the gateway to opera.”

Often, she chooses shows with lots of kids in the cast – drawing parents to the Paramount Theater, introducing those 30-somethings to opera.  Many, she says, come back.

"That is not only cool.  That is the future of opera."

After five years with Ash Lawn, Kreisel says the audience has doubled.  Madame Butterfly is on stage July 16 and 18, while My Fair Lady begins its run August first.


Credit Photo: Janet Moore


Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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