Succinct Opera Tweets Lead to Fairy-Tale Ending for D.C. Music Teacher

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"There was a young lady called Fricka Who . . . who . . . *snore* 'Wake up -- it's over.' It's good, I just wish it were quicka." That's the plot of Wagner's "Ring Cycle" in fewer than 140 characters, as posted on the micro-blogging Web site Twitter.

Canadian music writer invents contest; Oregon-based Brit wins it; Washington music teacher gets prize, ball gown, Cinderella night.

This one isn't an opera plot. This is a true story.

Priscilla Barrow, who has taught music in D.C. public schools for 22 years, learned Monday, out of the blue, that she will be going to the final performance of "Turandot" at the Washington National Opera on June 4 and, the next night, the company's annual Opera Ball at the German Embassy. In a ball gown provided by the opera's costume shop.

And that was a prize for a Twitter contest she didn't even enter -- given to her by winner Stephen Llewellyn, a British-born former barrister who now lives in Portland, Ore., whom she has never met.

The magic of opera, indeed.

It started when Marcia Adair, a Canadian music journalist, initiated a competition on Twitter calling for people to tweet opera plots. Adair, who blogs as The Omniscient Mussel (the name is taken from a character in Strauss's seldom-performed opera "Die Aegyptische Helena"), came up with the idea in March as an informal lark for her handful of Twitter followers; when she got about 90 responses in a week, she thought that perhaps she could take it further. She announced a second, more formal round of the contest and approached opera companies about donating prizes. By the time #operaplot, Round 2, began April 27, winners could choose from tickets to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Glyndebourne and 30 other companies around the globe.

In addition to Llewellyn's winning summation of the "Ring Cycle," more than 500 entries poured in:

-- "Egyptians & Ethiopian trapped in tragic love pyramid. 2 heroes of show: tenor, elephant wrangler. (Soprano wrangler also useful.)" ("Aida")

-- "Consumptive doxy wooed by nice guy; pa makes her end it. They fight, they make up, she dies-all while bored violas play oom-pa-pa" ("La Traviata")

-- "AlmavivaHasAimsMostImpure/ThatHisWifeCanNoLongerEndure/SoShePlotsW/HerMaid/HidesDisguisedInAGlade/JigIsUp-NoMoreDroitDeSeigneur" ("Marriage of Figaro")

Adair -- whose own crowd of Twitter followers had swelled from a few dozen to about 500 -- had a celebrity guest judge, soprano Danielle De Niese, select five winners and three honorable mentions. Each winner got to pick from the pool of prizes.

Llewellyn, 62, is the blogger for the Portland Opera, where he used to work full time. Not only was he one of the five winners, but he also got first crack at the prizes. "I had to go with the biggie," he says, referring to the Washington National Opera package, "because I knew I was going to give it away." Feeling that he goes to enough opera as it is, Llewellyn set about finding someone for whom the event might be a special, unlooked-for treat. He conceived of giving the tickets to a D.C. music teacher as a gesture of appreciation.

On his own initiative, Llewellyn called Ben Hall, the head of music in D.C. schools, and asked whether he could suggest teachers who might be interested in such a prize. (Llewellyn wanted to make sure that it would go to someone who would actually enjoy it.) He also made other calls. He lined up a donor to take care of incidental expenses. He called the head of the costume department at the WNO, Marsha LeBoeuf, to ask whether she would be willing to dress the winner. The costume department had just received news that it was being downsized in response to a scaled-down 2009-10 season, and they were ready for some good karma; they were happy to oblige.

"I reckon I've had much more fun in the past week," Llewellyn says, "than I would have from going to opera and the ball."

Barrow's name was a clear standout. She teaches at two elementary schools in Northeast Washington, Emery and Houston. She seeks out partnerships with a spectrum of arts organizations in an effort to bring new opportunities to her students: Washington Performing Arts Society's Embassy Adoption Program, the Shakespeare Theatre and Washington National Opera's outreach program, which this year had her students immersed in "Carmen."

"I think it's so important," she says of arts education. "Many times, kids can only express themselves through art. . . . Everything cannot be paper, pencil, regurgitating information."

As for the prize, "I was literally speechless," she said.

"I am totally elated and excited." So is Llewellyn.

"This really is an opportunity," he said, "to recognize and say thank you, not just to her, but to her as a representative of all the teachers who bring art to students who otherwise would probably not have a chance" to be exposed to it.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company