Giving opera fans a head start

November 15, 1991|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

OPERA IS FUN, and funny. It's bright and interesting, more interesting than straight theater. It doesn't have to be hard to understand, or like.

You don't think so?

Just ask Robert Kennedy, a music professor and head of the opera workshop at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

He says opera has gotten a bad rap. And he'd like to change that.

Where is he starting? In kindergarten.

That's how young some of the audiences for UMBC's opera workshop productions are. And they aren't put off by opera. Some of the youngsters come back regularly.

The opera workshop, a three-credit course for voice students, gives them an opportunity to learn a role "from beginning to end" and perform on stage, Kennedy says. When he took over the workshop three years ago, Kennedy geared its performances toward elementary and middle school children to expose them to opera before they were tainted by opera's "unfair reputation."

"Popular culture is such a loud force . . . and popular culture does not include opera," he says. "There are a lot of negatives to overcome in our society for classical music and classical singing," says Kennedy, who also teaches voice and diction at UMBC.

Although he must choose operas to match the ability and availability of his students, Kennedy also tries to select those that will "leave children with a good taste" for opera -- usually short, contemporary works in English that he thinks will appeal to young audiences.

"Give them a positive experience" with classical music, says Kennedy. "You can't take something to them that they can't understand."

Kennedy, who has been singing and performing since he was a youngster, had his first experience with opera for children about 10 years ago when he sang with the National Opera Company in North Carolina.

With that company, he performed in 100 shows a year for school children, Kennedy says. "I was impressed with their response to opera."

Many adults think of opera as "large people with huge voices singing very loudly and just sort of standing there," he says. But, in this country, singers today are better actors, performing better theater, he contends. And contemporary operas are numerous and diverse enough to satisfy most tastes.

Kennedy thinks children will take to the humor and exaggerated characters in this semester's offering, "Sid the Serpent Who Wanted To Sing." Workshop students will perform the opera this week at three area elementary schools. (The only public performance is tomorrow at UMBC).

This contemporary opera by Australian Malcolm Fox is "sort of show biz," he says.

"It's less what you would think of as opera and more what you would think of as Broadway in approach. It's fast-paced and exaggerated," with even a touch of vaudeville, he says.

Sid is an amiable snake, a tenor, who tires of slithering around and tries to sing. After a couple of failures, he discovers that he is singing opera. Helping him make this discovery are three members of a traveling circus, a strongman, a juggler and a clown, who sing baritone, soprano and mezzo-soprano, Kennedy explains. There are just four characters in the opera, though the circus members assume various roles.

Kennedy himself plays the strongman because the student originally selected for the role has a job that conflicted with rehearsals.

Not only does this production introduce children to opera, but it also shows them other musical styles, such as pop, vaudeville, Italian opera and even a little soft shoe.

The comedy is short -- about 50 minutes -- which is crucial for a young audience, he says.

In addition to a reputation as stuffy and distant, opera is also considered expensive to produce and attend. "Contemporary operas are able to be produced for much less money [than grand opera] and still be effective," Kennedy says. Performance prices are also kept reasonable.

For the first time this year, the opera workshop will be taking its performances on the road -- to Catonsville Elementary School, Cape St. Claire Elementary School and Severn School. Kennedy was also asked to perform the opera at several other schools but cannot fill those requests because of UMBC students' other commitments.

He takes the requests as a good sign, however. "Someone there is sympathetic," he says.

"Sid the Serpent Who Wanted To Sing," will be performed at 1 p.m. tomorrow at the Fine Arts Recital Hall on the UMBC campus. Admission is $1 for children and $3 for adults. For information, phone the music department at 455-2942.

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