'Dream of the Pacific': A Night at the Opera

The opera
The opera "Dream of the Pacific," featuring a cast of young performers, recounts Lewis and Clark's expedition over land to the Pacific Ocean. (Photos By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 4, 2006

The Washington National Opera is staging its first family opera this weekend, attempting to make opera accessible to a wider -- and younger -- audience.

"Dream of the Pacific," sung in English, is part history lesson and part musical experience. It's about the grueling Lewis and Clark expedition to find a water route across the uncharted American wilderness to the Pacific Ocean. The 70-minute opera is recommended for ages 7 and older.

For Emma Earnest, 15, an incoming freshman at JEB Stuart High School in Falls Church, the most difficult part of preparing for the opera seems not to have been the long hours learning the demanding music or practicing the evocative choreography. "Being with younger kids is a little challenging for me, personally," she said somewhat ruefully, referring to the Opera Camp for Kids, whose singers are performing in the production. "But the directors treat us with respect, as if we're older, as long as we act older, and that helps."

It is the first blending of the three educational programs of the opera company's Center for Education and Training. The Opera Camp kids are ages 10 to 15, while older performers are members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program or graduates of the Opera Institute. Sixteen girls and 14 boys are working with the four adult principal singers in the opera, which is making its East Coast premiere. They will be accompanied by members of the Youth Orchestra of the Americas.

Emma is part of a unique chorus. "We're pretty much the emotions, like when the explorers are, like, cold and dying, we're supposed to bring them down," she explained. "And toward the end, when we find the ocean, we're supposed to be really uplifting."

Librettist Elkhanah Pulitzer, who is stage-directing, said: "There was only one female on the journey, the Native American guide Sacagawea, so very early on we wanted to explore the relationships the explorers had with the landscape, which was probably the biggest adversary they faced, aside from their own internal doubts and fears. So we created a chorus of young females to balance the males and represent the changing landscape in the story."

Composer Stephen Mager, who is conducting, noted that as a result, this opera has an unusually strong emphasis on choral music. He said the music was not made less complex to appeal to a family audience. "The music's quite serious and sophisticated, so I think anyone who loves opera may find this piece interesting," he said. "We don't dumb it down."

Mager and Pulitzer agreed that learning about the 1804-06 travels of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark before attending the opera would help kids understand it.

Emma said she's not sure if her hip-hop-hooked peers will appreciate the opera, but she hopes they will. "I personally have enjoyed opera," she said. "A couple of my friends will sit there and they'll be, like, 'When is it over?' I don't count on them suddenly finding it cool, but I think some will be drawn to the music and others to the movement."

DREAM OF THE PACIFIC Saturday at 1 and 4 and Sunday at 4 and 7 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East West Hwy., Bethesda. Mager and Pulitzer will lecture Saturday at 2:30. $10 adults, $7 ages 15 and younger. For advance tickets, call 202-295-2400 today from 10 to 5. Tickets also will be available at the box office 90 minutes before each performance. Scenes will be performed Monday at 6 at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage; the performance is free and there are no reservations.

For information about this opera, visithttp://www.dc-opera.orgorhttp://www.lewisandclarkopera.org. For information on the Lewis and Clark expedition, visit "Lewis and Clark: The National Bicentennial Exhibition" at the National Museum of Natural History or see the show online athttp://www.lewisandclarkexhibit.org.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company