Bethesda boy stars in “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me” opera at Kennedy Center

December 9, 2013

You might think of opera as a long, boring musical show for adults that showcases big voices that don’t sound anything like what you hear on the radio.

But for the next two weekends, the Washington National Opera will perform an opera that was written especially for kids. It’s called “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me,” and Saturday is its world premiere. (That means this is the first time this show will be performed.)

The lead role in the opera is sung by Henry Wager, an 11-year-old who used to live in Bethesda. The chorus is made up of 16 local singers, ages 6 to 15. It’s the first time that the Washington National Opera has chosen kids to be in a chorus that will perform throughout the year. The new opera, about the birth of Jesus, will be their first show, and they’ll back up 10 adult performers who sing with the typical big voices but also act in funny, entertaining ways.

Music and words together

“It’s up to me. I need to make a choice. Will you help me make a choice? . . . There’s a baby who needs a ride,” Henry, who plays the Angel, sings to the audience in the beginning of the opera.

In a twist on the normal Nativity story, the Angel needs to choose an animal the possibilities include a clucking flamingo and a roaring lion — that will help Mary and Joseph get to the manger.

“My favorite [song] is “The Lion,” said Henry, who lives in New York but used to go to Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase.

In operas and musical theater, a composer writes the music and a librettist writes the words. Both the music and the words are supposed to be beautiful and tell a story, but they’re also supposed to tell you about the character.

With this opera, the performers sing as if they’re making the sounds of the animals. When the lion, with his deep, bass voice, sings an aria (or song) that includes a run of notes that go up and down the scale, it sounds as if he’s roaring in the jungle. A flamingo sounds as if she is clucking by emphasizing the “K” sound when she sings.

Probably the best example in the show of the music and the words coming together is when the snake, played by the chorus, enters. “I can slide. I can slither,” the kids sing, emphasizing the “S” sound. They surround the angel, and they crescendo, meaning they sing louder, and then decrescendo, meaning they get softer, making it sound like a snake slithering.

An early start

Henry has been singing in professional productions for a couple of years.

“I just like doing shows, pretending you’re somebody else,” he said.

Henry’s music in the opera is not simple. The notes are not memorable tunes that anyone could easily hum. Yet Henry memorized his part with the help of his mom, who is a musician, even before rehearsals started November 18.

That’s typical for professional performers. In rehearsals, which went six hours a day for six days a week, he worked on staging (where he moves) and then perfecting his role, and putting the notes, his character and his movements all together. He has been keeping up with schoolwork on his own.

“I’ve always liked music,” Henry said. “But I never really started thinking about doing it like this.” Now he thinks he may want to be an opera singer when he grows up.

Maya McGuire, 11, a sixth-grader at St. Peter’s School in Southeast who is one of the chorus members, started singing with professional companies when she was 8. “I’ve just always loved to sing,” she said. “I never get scared onstage. It’s so fun to sing and get your emotions out.”

At the end of the first act of the two-hour show, the Angel decides to choose the humble donkey to carry Mary and Joseph to a warm place. All the animals are happy with the Angel’s decision, and the donkey sings “eee-ah” enthusiastically.

The first act ends with the thrill of a big chorus number that includes dancing and beautiful high, soprano notes.

In opera, Henry said, “you’re always going to be excited and feel what the people onstage are feeling. People will enjoy this.”

IF YOU GO: “The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me”

What: The world premiere of a new opera for kids age 6 and older.

When: Saturday at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m (a discussion with the artists follows the 7:30 performance), Sunday at 2 p.m., December 20 at 7:30 p.m., December 21 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and December 22 at 2 p.m.

Where: Kennedy Center Terrace Theater, 2700 F Street NW.

How much: $44-$64.

Information: A parent can call 202-467-4600 or visit www.kennedy-center.org.

— Moira E. McLaughlin

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