“The funny thing is I didn’t really know who Placido Domingo was until I started singing in the opera,” said Melanie Lukas, a fifth grader at Norwood Elementary. “But now that I know he’s one of the world famous tenors, it’s so cool to be around him.”
Little girls’ dreams do come true. Five Potomac girls recently sang in front of a full house at the Kennedy Center during a Washington Opera production of Tchaikovsky’s “Pique Dame,” also known as “The Queen of Spades.”
Placido Domingo, opera star and Washington Opera’s Artistic Director, sang in all eight performances.
Libby Dorot, Kendall Forward, Melanie Lukas, Leah Maggin, and Jordan Sullivan, all local students, sang in Russian and performed as “pretend” soldiers in the opening act, before Domingo came on stage.
“I POKE SOMEONE in their butt and then I run to the stairs and look happy, and then someone takes me out because he’s mad at me,” said Jordan Sullivan, a 7-year-old first grader at Greenacres School who also played Cupid. “And then I go back in and bow with him.”
All the girls had voice lessons, and most of them are involved in their school chorus. Norwood Elementary fifth graders Kendall Forward and Melanie Lukas, started out at the Bethesda Academy of Performing Arts (BAPA) — now BAPA's Imagination Stage — several years ago, where they met their voice trainer, Deborah Brenner. Recognizing the girls’ voice talent, Brenner told them about the Washington Opera tryouts. She also got them involved in singing at weddings.
“It seemed like a fun after-school thing to do,” said Kendall. “I’ve always wanted to learn to sing really well, and just suddenly, out of the blue, I decided [to start voice training.]”
During the initial audition, the Chorus Master Steve Gathman and Children’s Chorus Master Michelle Kunz selected children based on their voice ranges and their ability to come to rehearsals, said Jennifer Crier, Washington Opera’s Public Relations Associate. Kunz then trained the children for the production.
AT THE FIRST rehearsals, the girls learned the music and libretto, and were coached in Russian dialogue. Later rehearsals were with the rest of the opera company, and the last week, rehearsals were held at the Kennedy Center so that the girls could see what it was like to be on stage, with a set and in costume. The girls rehearsed for six weeks before the first performance.
“We’ve been rehearsing since the beginning of April, and it’s been pretty hard with my homework and everything,” said Kendall. “But my teachers have been nice, so it all works out.”
Melanie said singing in Russian “wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be because they taught it to us phonetically and explained what it meant.” She added, “It’s fun to say to your friends, ‘I know Russian.’”
Johnston said that the Washington Opera runs a six-week-long opera camp for children during the summer. At the end of the camp, the children perform an opera. Although children who are in the camp often audition for performances during the year, “one is not reliant on the other.” None of the Potomac girls attended the camp last summer.
“THE QUEEN OF SPADES is basically about a girl who is engaged to another boy, but then she falls in love with Placido,” said Leah Maggin, an 11-year-old fifth grader at Bells Mill Elementary.
Placido Domingo played Hermann, a soldier obsessed with discovering a secret card trick so that he can become wealthy and marry the “girl”. The girl is Lisa, the granddaughter of a very wealthy Countess that knows the trick. In order to extract the secret from the Countess, Hermann, “threatens her and she dies of fright,” said Leah. When the card trick goes awry, Hermann goes mad and “everybody dies.”
As the girls were getting ready in the dressing room on closing night, Domingo made an announcement over the loudspeaker to the cast, wishing them luck and asking that they perform as well on the last night as they had throughout the production.
The girls said they felt excited to be part of the production. Domingo told them that they had done a good job after every performance.
“HE CALLS ME CUPID,” quipped Jordan Sullivan, who wants to be “a singer and a mom” when she grows up.
“You meet a lot of interesting people,” said 16-year-old Bullis sophomore Libby Dorot. “I’ve met like four of my best friends doing operas. … When you actually get to sing stuff, it’s a lot different than just listening to it, because it’s like, I was there, I did that.”