Fostering a young opera audience

Artist: Lyric soprano Yvette Lewis took over music classes at a North Laurel school for a week as part of the state's Artists-in-Education program.

January 16, 2002|By Karen Nitkin | Karen Nitkin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Yvette Lewis has performed with the Baltimore Opera, the Washington Opera and even the Spoleto Festival in Melbourne, Australia.

But last week, the lyric soprano faced a more demanding audience - a room filled with about 60 second-graders at Forest Ridge Elementary School in North Laurel.

Lewis is one of hundreds of poets, painters and performing artists who visit schools throughout the state as part of the Maryland State Arts Council's Artists-in-Education program.

Lewis took over music classes at Forest Ridge for the week, preparing the children for performances they gave Thursday evening and Friday during school hours.

"The kids just adore her," said Mary Curry, the school's music teacher. "She's a master storyteller, a master teacher and a master singer, and she has a heavenly voice."

Lewis clearly was comfortable in front of the group of three second-grade classes, probably because she has taught music in Baltimore City and Montgomery County elementary schools.

She paced the front of the room, sometimes singing, sometimes playing the piano, as she prepared children for the performance they would give that evening. The children sang, tapped their mallets on xylophones and glockenspiels, and followed instructions. "Long, short, short, short," Lewis called out as the children played. "Long, short, short."

"Part of being a good orchestra player is being able to listen to directions," Lewis said. "I like the way that sounded," she said later.

For the performance, Lewis taught each grade to perform selections from classic operas such as La Boheme, Madame Butterfly and The Marriage of Figaro. The younger children learned an operetta that Lewis had created.

"It's all about expectations," Lewis said, as one group filed out at the end of the class and another arrived.

She explained that children love music and they love storytelling, so they have a natural attraction to opera. Lewis, who lives in Michigan and Maryland, travels throughout the Northeast and Michigan teaching opera. She says Maryland's program is one of the best-organized she has seen.

The Maryland Artists-in-Education program began about 25 years ago with visiting poets, said Pam Dunne, AiE program director. It now includes visual and performing artists.

Every two years, a call is issued for new artists, Dunne said. Ma- terials are sent in, and about 75 percent of the playwrights, poets, dancers, musicians and other artists who apply for the program are accepted. Schools can choose artists from the roster, which has about 350 names. The visiting artist's expenses and salary are split between the school and the arts council, Dunne said.

Most of the artists visit elementary and middle schools, although a few high schools also participate, Dunne said. Lewis noted that she likes teaching children young, before their stereotypes about opera harden into images of fat ladies with funny hats.

"It's an opportunity for children to work with professional artists," noted Dunne. "It's very different, being an art teacher, where you have a very specific curriculum, and I think the artists bring in an aspect to the children of someone who is doing this professionally. I think that's very valuable. It gives them a real-life idea of what an artist does."

The schoolchildren in Lewis' opera program found another advantage. "They are absolutely in love with her," said Curry, the music teacher. "She is a celebrity around here."

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