When Mozart wrote “The Magic Flute” in the late 1700s, it's hard to imagine he envisioned an audience entirely filled with elementary school children.
But that's just what's happening this week as more than 2,200 students from schools in Arlington, Alexandria and Washington, D.C., are given the opportunity to see a free, hour-long production of the beloved opera, thanks to Opera NOVA.
See the Show
A community performance of “The Magic Flute,” produced by Opera NoVa, is scheduled for Saturday, Nov. 22, 2 p.m. at Thomas Jefferson Middle School’s auditorium, 125 South Old Glebe Road, Arlington. Tickets are $4 for students under 18 years and younger; $6 for those 19 and older. For more information, call 703-536-7557.
For more than 40 years, Miriam Miller, Opera NOVA's president, has worked with a coalition of musicians and artists to present condensed opera for children at no cost to their families.
"Equal access to arts education and arts opportunities dominates all activities of Opera NOVA," said Miller, whose work in the arts in Arlington County began with the creation of an artists' guild in the 1970s. "Opera NOVA gives support and inclusion to several minority organizations and individual performers with deliberate intent to implement an Arlington value to assure all of its residents and guests are welcome in equal access to its arts."
Arlington was recently designated by the Coalition for Smarter Growth as "a world-class residential, business and tourist location," something which "few political jurisdictions in the U.S. can boast," Miller said.
But Miller can't take all the credit for the successful initiative, which in recent years put on back-to-back productions of the bilingual opera “Monkey See, Monkey Do.” The idea of introducing young children to opera came from Catherine Filene Shouse, founder of Wolf Trap. She believed providing children with the opportunity to experience the arts from a young age not only gave them a chance to learn in an entertaining way, but could level the playing field for those children who might not otherwise see a live theatrical performance, Miller said.
"We are a community opera company," she added. "We are a people's opera company. We strive to be as inclusive, diverse and equal as possible."
To make sure the children are prepared for the opera performance, Opera NOVA also distributes study guides to teachers who are bringing their students, Miller said. She believes some will use them in lessons leading up to the opera or for discussions after the performance.
Giving Instruments an Encore
In addition to providing a free, hour-long opera specially adapted for children each year, Opera NOVA also collects instruments to help area schools offer music lessons.
Miriam Miller, Opera NOVA's president, said the program began with a phone call from a woman who was downsizing her home and wanted to donate some recorders. Miller happily accepted them and later realized they were "in a top class as an instrument."
And each time she gets a call about a donation, Miller gets a little something extra.
"The instruments do not come alone. They come with a long phone call and story about their role in the donor's life," she said. People want to donate instruments to help other children have a chance to learn to love music in the same way the original owner had, Miller said.
The donated instruments are given to schools, mainly in Arlington but some have gone to Alexandria City schools as well. To donate an instrument, or to learn more about where the instruments are distributed, contact Opera NOVA at 703-536-7557.
In addition to Miller's more than 30 years of work and dedication to the arts, her conductor and director each have been involved with the annual children's production for several years. They all agree seeing their young audience's reaction to classical songs and stories is what brings them back.
A singer and musician himself, conductor Jose Sacin said the small orchestral group of eight musicians enjoys the challenge of a condensed opera.
Either before or after each performance, the musicians will introduce their instruments and play a few notes so the children know which sounds are coming from which instrument, he said. That would be more difficult if the orchestra contained the 30 or more musicians used in standard performances.
Of course, “The Magic Flute” typically nearly three hours to perform.
For those in the audience during the performance open to the community, scheduled for Saturday, Sacin promises the important and familiar songs remain.
"To try to keep the kids engaged, it's better with more fun, lively music," he said. The opera's overture has been moved to the end of the production in order to "get right into the action," he added.
Sacin, who also serves as Opera NOVA's artistic director, said his goal, and the reason he remains involved in the children's performances, is to create a new generation of opera lovers.
"If they come to the opera now, they're more likely to want to come back," he said.
Roger Riggle, the opera's director, said he's incorporating lots of lighting effects and colorful fabrics used in imaginative ways to keep the children engaged and involved in the story as it unfolds.
This is the second opera he's directed for Opera NOVA, as “Monkey See, Monkey Do” was performed for several years in a row, he recalled fondly.
"‘Monkey See’ is one of the cutest operas. It's very popular on the West Coast but not done much here," Riggle said. The difference with “The Magic Flute” is it's a "fully-fledged Mozart opera," whereas the other was created specifically for children.
To make the opera fit into an hour, much of the story's action is condensed, which means leaving out several characters. However, Riggle promised that the most memorable characters will be there. In fact, as the children's performances are taking place during the school day, Riggle has worked with two sets of cast members, with understudies standing behind the lead actors to learn their blocking at the same time.
The actors have been rehearsing with a 20-foot by 30-foot piece of chiffon that can be used in many ways, including a tent above a character or something to stand on, in addition to a 12-foot-long dragon made to represent a serpent chasing the lead character in an early scene, Riggle said. "It's a puppet, complete with eyes blinking and a big mouth with big teeth."
He shares Sacin's hope that bringing children to the opera at a young age will inspire future patrons, but admitted that some of the students in the weekly dance classes he teaches aren't as familiar with theater as he'd like.
He and Miller know the importance of fostering a love of the arts early on and hope the operas will reach some of the students.
"Children ought to have access to something related to the expression of the spiritual side of humanity," Miller said. "I really buy into what [Filene Shouse] believed, her ideal was you have to give every child equal access to America's cultural history."