It wasn’t a typical Wolf Trap opera event.
Many in the audience squirmed or stood up; others talked or bubbled over with energy. A few cried. The audience, however, loved the production, as did the cast. Nothing unexpected.
For five days every summer, the Wolf Trap Opera Company [WTOC] produces ‘Instant Opera’ for children, an interactive program where young children pitch the story ideas, and the opera company responds with explanation, a whimsical plot, and song.
"We started doing the ‘Instant Opera’ for kids a few years ago," said Chris Guerre, director, Wolf Trap Public Relations. "The kids are introduced to opera, learning that opera tells a story. And the kids get to participate."
Here’s the set-up of ‘Instant Opera.’
Vocalists — soprano, mezzo soprano, baritone, and tenor — sing a brief emotive aria, and the kids in the audience, using applause, vote for the emotion of the aria to be used in the improvisational production.
Wednesday’s audience was big on ‘scared’ and ‘sad’ music, and infused the production with Scooby Doo, Barney, a princess, and a witch. Barney and Scooby Doo were destined to dance, while the witch was ordered to tell jokes. The princess was seeking her dwarfs. From these pieces of inspiration came a 60-minute ‘opera’ of song and rollicking action. Squeals of laughter and cheers from the youngsters heightened the exuberance of the performance.
Nine-year-old Jack Watkins of Reston gave the production two thumbs up, saying he "really liked the story."
Jack sat with his mother, Carla Watkins, 6-year-old brother James, 13-year-old sister Kelly Jean, and grandmother, Rosemarie Donoho.
"We’re local, and this is so convenient," said Carla Watkins. "We’ve been coming to Theatre-in-the-Woods since Kelly Jean was little. These shows are reasonably-priced … we got two morning shows for $8 per person. We watched the 10 a.m. show, had a picnic lunch, and then watched the second show.
"The quality of programming is very good."
The cast of ‘Instant Opera’ is made up of four enthusiastic Wolf Trap Opera Company members, all in their late 20s. Tamara ‘Tammy’ Wilson, Jamie Van Eyck, Dominic Armstrong, and James J. [JJ] Kee, are global professional artists polishing their performance skills in the Wolf Trap Opera Company.
Sporting bright, colorful T-shirts with their names, the cast introduced their vocal ranges through light-hearted, expressive arias. They were accompanied by an equally-colorfully T-shirted pianist, who held up cue cards guiding the audience to yell bravo, brava, and bravi, when appropriate. After the program, the cast signed autographs for guests.
The audience was a few hundred strong, with families and camp groups from around Northern Virginia well-represented. There are need-based tickets for public service groups that qualify.
"What makes the Wolf Trap Opera Company so unique, is that everyone in the opera company stays in local homes while here," said Kim Witman of Vienna, director, Wolf Trap Opera and Classical Programming. "We’re always looking for host families."
Working as an ensemble of approximately 25 participants at a time, the WTOC performs at the Barns between May and August when touring acts play at Filene Center.
JJ [James J.] Kee is a local son of the D.C.-metro area. He lived in Gaithersburg and the District, and remembers coming to Wolf Trap as a 4- or 5-year-old. "Performing here was a dream," he says.
For serious opera singers, the transition to comedy is striking but enjoyable. To engage the young children, the performers transform themselves into operatic Marx Brothers.
The four artists offered their take on the ‘Instant Opera’ concept.
"It’s really fun," says Van Eyck. "The second you hear the kids laughing, you turn into a clown."
Kee looks into the future when performing for children.
"We want there to be an opera audience for us 15 years down the line. And for us, this is a great way to get kids interested in opera."
Armstrong describes the first 30 minutes, where terms are explained and children participate, as more valuable to the introduction process than the last 30. "There are a lot of kids who’ll go home today and know what an aria is, who will know what opera is," he says.
Wilson agreed. "There is not really a niche for children to be exposed to opera. ‘Instant Opera’ fulfills it."