Opera wanders into an inner-city elementary school

March 24, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

The echoing multi-purpose room of Gwynns Falls Elementary School gradually grows quieter as 100 or so restless students squirm into folding seats and teacher Susan Dexter assumes the role of warm-up host.

"You're going to be listening to some music today," she says, her voice raised firmly. "And this music, I will tell you a little bit about it. It's different from the music you have heard before, but it is not funny music -- it is just a different kind of music you are going to learn about.

"I want you children to show our guests what a good audience you can be . . . I want you to learn to appreciate this music."

The children applaud, Jane Rubak strikes up the piano and tuxedo-clad tenor John Weber strides out from stage left.

"A wandering minstrel I . . ." he sings, his voice booming into the room and hushing the last vocal students. A few musical bars later, Judy Tormey joins him on stage, her soprano voice soaring high in the Gilbert and Sullivan harmony.

The Wandering Opera Players have struck again.

For 17 years, Ms. Tormey and company have been visiting public schools in Baltimore City and surrounding counties to introduce students to the high musical art.

They are due to sing again tomorrow in a 10 a.m. program at St. Philip and James Church, at 2801 N. Charles St., in a program arranged for schools unable to accommodate the group. About 150 students will attend the event.

"It is truly very satisfying to feel you have brought something into these children's lives they would not have had otherwise," says Ms. Tormey, who founded P.A.C.E. (Performing Arts for Children's Education) in 1978 as an arm of Baltimore Music Club Inc., a 73-year-old non-profit organization. She previously had been singing in schools for the organization Young Audiences.

"Especially for a lot of inner-city school kids, this is an art form they might never have heard," says Mr. Weber, who sings with the Baltimore Opera and the Baltimore Symphony Chorus and also does school outreach programs through the Baltimore Opera and Young Audiences.

The Wandering Opera Players are one of eight in-school presentations offered by P.A.C.E. Other performers and school presenters are pianist Reynaldo Reyes, cellist/pianist Cecylia Barczyk, the Bob Fields Jazz Quartet, The Harbor Winds, the Bel Canto Quartet, Strings Unlimited and harpsichordist Anita Avery.

"I think our children really need to be exposed to other kinds of music. They've never been exposed to opera before," suggests Ms. Dexter, the cultural arts enrichment teacher who arranged the Wandering Opera Players performance last week at Gwynns Falls Elementary.

She was pleased and relieved the students had, for the most part, been engaged throughout the 45-minute presentation. In the final minutes, a half-dozen even went on stage to perform as dancers with Ms. Tormey and Mr. Weber

Throughout the program, the performers ask questions of the students and explain the songs and actions about to happen on stage.

For example, Mr. Weber, in his second year performing in P.A.C.E., asks if anybody knows what "props" are in theatrical productions.

"Like swords and stuff," says one boy, forecasting a scene to come (from Donizetti's "Lucia di Lammermoor") in which, indeed, Mr. Weber wields a sword.

The tenor explains the difference between operetta and opera, and Ms. Tormey gets big laughs when she lists the characters in "The Mikado": Yum-Yum, Nanky Poo and Ko-Ko.

At times, the students are so eager to answer questions that Ms. Tormey has to admonish, "Don't call out, raise your hands and let us call on you."

"We never make a statement if we can ask a question of the students," she explains afterward, adding, "If they know they're going to be involved you don't lose their interest."

Only once in an estimated 500 school appearances did a show flatly fail, she recalls -- students had been told they were gathering to hear a talk from Orioles outfielder Paul Blair. "Well, we just couldn't continue, and I guess I don't blame them," she says, laughing.

The soprano, who grew up in Baltimore, has been the constant of the Wandering Opera Players.

Her first tenor partner was James Atherton, who went on to sing with the Metropolitan Opera; others have included Gary Leard and Richard Gratton.

Ms. Rubak, who once taught music in city schools, is in her first year at the P.A.C.E. piano. Previous accompanists have been David Cangialosi and Solange Frank.

Have any students who have seen a P.A.C.E. presentation ever gone on to a career in music?

"Oh, I wish I knew. No one has ever let us know that," Ms. Tormey says. "But you never know how what you do strikes people. I hope that we may influence somebody on the cusp of making a decision. And if we have just touched 12 students over the year with our music, it's been worth it."

P.A.C.E. groups are paid fees by the schools, often through enrichment-funding programs, and the organization also has received grants from the Maryland Arts Council, the CityArts Grant program and other organizations and individuals.

Ms. Tormey says the spring calendar still has openings for performances. Call (410) 377-0638.

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