One thing that I’ve learned over the years being involved with the arts is that when things get difficult, there is always an abundance of creativity and ideas to draw from. When creating is a part of the industry, and challenges get thrown your way, it certainly helps to be able to brainstorm unique solutions. With school funding for the arts getting cut more and more, and organizations themselves struggling to make ends meet, I met a young Chicagoan recently who has found a creative way to engage young students with music and get opera into the classroom.
Founder and director of Chicago Opera Play House, Linden Christ, chatted with me about her idea for the organization and how it’s making an impact around the city. To learn more visit: http://www.lindenchrist.com/services/chicago-opera-play-house/.
Where did the idea for Chicago Opera Play House come from?
In 2005 I was in Rome, Italy, working on a production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. We had many Italian kids performing with us and I just thought it was so amazing they got an important part of the production. I was so bummed that my friends and family in Illinois wouldn’t have the opportunity to perform and be involved like this. So, I returned to the States, cut down Humperdinck’s opera to an hour and invited young students to learn part of the chorus. I remember that we put the lyrics on the back of lollipops so they could remember them after learning the music. Then we performed our first season around Chicago and Peoria in 2007.
What are the major goals for you when you’re working with the kids?
The goals really are focused on exposure and enjoyment. We want kids to be exposed to opera but also find the fun in the music and stories. Schools have been dropping their arts programming because of funding, even though the kids, teachers and administrators and parents want these programs. We have found an affordable way to bring opera not just to the students, but make it so they can experience it and participate. It really develops a sort of school pride when students get to see their peers involved and performing.
How do the children usually respond to your programs? What sorts of things do you plan to engage them?
After our programs we have a question and answer session with the actors and the composer and musicians. Each time we just see the hands shoot into the air with questions: the kids are so curious and want to know more. With Cinderhood, our pianist is our composer so it is wonderful that the kids can really ask him questions. So many of the kids don’t know what opera even is, so it’s really exciting to see them get involved. It’s also so great to see them on the edge of their seats and being a good, attentive, excited audience.
How do you put together the operas and plan for the performances?
Well, for Hansel and Gretel I focused on condensing an already written piece, but generally we hire a composer to create a piece that is an hour in length, can involve the kids and fit multiple voices. We have a few performers, pretty basic sets and costumes, but a brand new children’s opera each year.
Cinderhood, our combination story of Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, runs through June, and our next performance is in early December for a local school. Next year we are doing the Knightly News, which should be a fun mash up of several recognizable stories for the kids. We do a lot with fairy tales and add twists and such to engage the kids, and get on a level they can understand and get excited about. The principals and teachers are always so enthusiastic to see their students performing and learning along the way with the program.