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Making Opera Cool

Great Falls resident participates in intense Washington National Opera 'Camp for Kids.'

Caroline Dunigan comes from a family that is musically inclined. Her mother sang in school, her father played in a band when he was in college, her older brother is a drummer, and both Caroline and her younger brother sing in the chorus of their schools. So when Caroline's voice teacher Peggy McNulty suggested that she try out for opera camp, she jumped at the idea.

"I love to sing," said Caroline, who lives in Great Falls and will start her freshman year at Langley High School in the fall.

Caroline has studied piano and voice, performed with Great Falls' Starshine Theatre, and has attended All State Honors Chorus.

"She's very serious, and I thought she should do something," said coice teacher Peggy McNulty. "She's got a really nice talent and she practices –– she's a serious student."

She auditioned for Washington National Opera's "Opera Camp for Kids," and she landed a spot in the intense month-long program. Caroline is one of 21 children, ages 10 to 14, accepted into the camp.

"It's been very fun," she said. "All the people have been very kind, and I think it's going to be a really good experience. I've never been in this kind of production before."

The four-week program culminates in a performance of the Washington National Opera's first family oriented opera, "Dream of the Pacific," which was created by composer Stephen Mager and librettist Elkhanah Pulitzer. The opera was inspired by the story of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and tells the tale of the two explorers and their native guide, Sacagawea.

"All of our education programs are coming together for the first time for this one production," said Angela Olson a public relations associate with the Washington National Opera. "This is part of our community outreach programs. We're trying to focus on bringing in families, and on having more children come in. It really plays against stereotypes to have young children involved in opera because a lot of times it's seen as stuffy and old."

THIS is the 12th year that the Washington National Opera has run its summer camp for children. The camp began on July 10, and will run until Aug. 4, Monday through Friday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The children participate in daily voice training and drama workshops, and also learn about opera history, character development, relaxation through yoga, and make-up application.

"I really like doing yoga," said Caroline. "It's hard to sing, and it teaches you about how to breathe when you are singing –– it's just really cool."

The students are preparing for "Dream of the Pacific" under the supervision of Stephen Mager and Elkhanah Pulitzer.

"It's quite a rare honor for children to learn from the original composer of the work," said Olson.

The program is challenging, and requires the children to be off book one week after starting the camp.

"Memorizing a 70-page opera is quite challenging," said Olson.

Alexis Acar of Centreville returned to the Washington National Opera camp after participating in it last summer. Although Alexis has always been more interested in Broadway musicals than opera, she decided it would be a good experience after talking to another girl about the camp in the waiting room of a doctor's office.

"The people here are like my people," said Alexis, who plans to pursue a career in musical theater. "They don't like regular music."

For Alexis, the best part of the opera camp is the resulting production.

"I like performing on stage –– that's the best part," she said.

She added that she is really enjoying "Dream of the Pacific."

"I like the music because it's more complex than last year," said Alexis. "You really have to be disciplined to do this."

DURING rehearsals, composer Stephen Mager encouraged his students to completely focus on the music and their singing.

"It's not just the words, and it's not just the rhythms," said Mager. "You have to have the harmonies in your ear, and that means the right, beautiful harmonies."

In addition to learning about opera, the camp attendees also learn about the history of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Last week, the young performers visited "Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition" at the National Museum of Natural History. The campers also met with members of The Smithsonian Associates Summer Camp.

"It's cool, because this school is really getting into the nitty-gritty details," said Caroline. "I think it's really great that we are studying Lewis and Clark in between singing."