Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Why would I choose a 400 year old opera for teenagers?

We did it! A month ago. :)

I am just now catching up with the rest of my life enough to be able to reflect a bit on our spring opera at CAPA. This year, we performed a very convincing and very successful "The Fairy Queen" by Henry Purcell. The piece was based on Shakespeare's A Mid-Summer Nights Dream (1592). Purcell performed his adaptation first in 1692!

I have produced and conducted the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts Opera Workshop for the past 15 years or so. Every year the discussion of repertoire comes up. Students ask for shows they know...everything from Aida to the Magic Flute, Phantom to Grease, Into the Woods and Carmen! It is such a crazy set of conversations. The students just would love some comfort... and comfort has very little to do with my vision for the course or for the act of performance at all.

I am interested in the WORK and in GROWTH and their rich EXPERIENCE. I love the battle. Largely because we seem to win the battle every year. The teenagers come to the project thinking that the great experience is somehow wrapped up in the repertoire, like, the title of the opera will determine whether they will enjoy it or not. 

We learn anew every year that rep itself only accounts for maybe 10% of the experience, while the majority (90%+) of the true experience is based on the in-the-moment act of singing and acting and working in ensemble. We can experience this 90% in almost any show, and yet, if I were to program GREASE, we might run the risk of never realizing that the 90% was to be found in them, not attributed to the repertoire. Great performances only happen when the performers are able to give something of themselves to the performance. It has to be an act of sharing. If this is missed, there is nothing the repertoire can do to save it. I love the unknown (and sometimes distant) repertoire, because it provides a clear hurdle to jump over. In many of these cases, they won't like it until they learn to share. We all know we have won when the piece ceases to be distant and they take ownership of their own performance and then share that with the audience. 

THEN, after all of that, we can step back and think, what lessons do we learn when programming a 400 year old opera for teenagers? We are certainly teaching them about opera and musical drama and stagecraft and big singing. They sing un-miked with an orchestra and a conductor (me) in the pit. They have to deal with a real Staging Director (Bruce Hosteter), and a real Costumer (Lacey Barker), and props, and lighting (Chris Howard), and stage managers, etc.  These are experiences that few teenagers ever get to be a part of.  And after all of that the true lessons, the big lessons are just getting started. 

When talking with the cast, after the production, about what they think they learned, almost all of the statements came down to lessons of professionalism. Instead of talking about music and singing and Purcell, the statements were all about: how to be responsible for you...how to work in an ensemble.....recognizing how many people behind the scenes it takes to pull it off....the difference between following and leading....patience....do your job....how to work hard....actually giving vs. faking it....taking risks....growth of self and growth of peers....

I love these lessons. This is why every high school in the country should be mounting large scale productions of any genre. 

The Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts production of Henry Purcell's the Fairy Queen! A 400 year old opera + 80 teenage singers + 14 teenage instrumentalists + 3 dancers & 1 outstanding harpsichord player Alaine Fink! Special Thanks to the amazing (and most perfect for this collaboration) Director Bruce Hostetler and of course to all of the student performers. You never fail to teach me. I am so thankful for the opportunity to work with you. 

Click here for all the pictures!

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