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Music program helps students learn to love opera

Sixteen St. Croix Central students made their opera debut last week. (front row, from left) Hunter Brady, Owen Schwechler, Brady Williquett, Ryan Christensen, Meghan Weatherly, Brianna Miller, (middle) Parker Standaert, Kelly Moran, Courtney Carlson, Ryan Knapton, Christine Pommerening (back) Liz Doornink, Matthew Lindberg, Isaiah Fieldler, Noah Carlson and Madison Villeneuve and the Opera for the Young performers. Photo by Laura Kruse

Typically, L'elisir d'amore (The Elixir of Love), a three-hour Italian opera, would be over the heads of elementary students and even many adults.

However, thanks to modifications by the Madison-based Opera for the Young, St. Croix Central Elementary students saw and understood the plot of the famous opera on Wednesday, March 25.

Opera for the Young translated the performance to English, then transported the action to the old American west rather than a small Italian village.

Exaggerated acting made the story easier to follow, even if the audience didn't catch all the lyrics.

Preparing the kids for the performance started weeks before the actors came to the school, said SCC music teacher Jeanne Larson. Opera has been integrated into her teaching curriculum, with help from the Opera for the Young.

"The teaching materials are fabulous," Larson said. Opera for the Young sends CDs and music to the teachers so kids can learn a few songs.

To help with the plot, Larson said she writes the musical score into a play for the kids to act out. Crazy costumes are a must.

"The format keeps things more lighthearted," she said.

Getting the students actively involved in the final show is a must.

When songs came up that they had learned in music class, all 575 students belted the words out with the pros.

Additionally, 16 fourth-graders took the stage alongside the four professionals. Larson said they were randomly chosen during music classes.

The kids played the townsfolk. They hit center stage several times during the performance. Two kids had lines to learn, while two girls danced with a performer.

Central's stars only had an hour with the Opera for the Young performers to learn the chorus blocking and choreography, and review the music.

In all, the performance was about 45 minutes, with a 15-minute question-answer session following.

Kids' questions covered all the bases of the opera. The actors and piano accompanist told the students that the costumes are made by a costume designer, and the props are made by a set designer. They said they learned to sing through voice lessons and years of training, they memorized everything to remember all the words, their favorite parts of the opera involve either singing loud and fast or moving fast, and singing with the Opera for the Young is their favorite job.

Larson said this is the eighth year the Opera for the Young has came to Central. The St. Croix Central Elementary Parent Teacher Organization footed this year's $725 bill, as with all costs from past years.

The response to the opera has been good, Larson said.

"I think they give a really positive response," Larson said, but admitted that she encourages students to tell what they saw and heard rather than things they didn't like.

Kids typically take note of details, Larson said. This year, students commented on parts of costumes and small props, she said.

"That shows me that they were listening and watching," Larson said.

The Opera for the Young has already been booked for next year, thanks to help from the PTO, Larson said.

She's already looking forward to it.

"This is one of my favorite things that happens each year," she said.

Opera for the Young annually presents up to 200 performances, reaching 70,000 children every school year throughout Wisconsin, northern Illinois, northwestern Indiana, the upper peninsula of Michigan and eastern Minnesota.