THE OPERA THEATRE of Northern Virginia is rehearsing for its next performance. All the elements of a traditional opera are here: the set, lights, costumes, a leading man and a leading lady. Here at the Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington, the performers take their places and the director gives the cue.
On stage walk a moose and a flying squirrel.
Not quite the stereotypical fat lady singing in Italian. This is "The Operatic Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," affectionately known as "Les Moose," an operatic experience that involves a stage framed in brown foam core to resemble a television set, animal costumes fastened with Velcro for quick changes and a score that practically begs you to sing along.
"Les Moose" is one of a growing number of operas in the United States being written for family audiences. Others have been fashioned from fairy tales ("Little Red Riding Hood" and "Cinderella," for instance, or local composer and librettist Nancy Binns Reed's "Ali Baba Opera" based on the Arabian Nights tale) and from books ("The Phantom Tollbooth" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe").
The appeal of "Les Moose" is that both parents and children can share the experience. Baby Boomers who grew up with the cartoon in the 1960s will enjoy being reunited with Rocky and Bullwinkle, Natasha and Boris. Their children may also know the cartoon, which has enjoyed a revival on Nickelodeon.
"Opera companies are trying to make opera more relevant to children," says Debra Evans, education director of the Washington Opera. "If they are familiar with the characters or story lines, they are more likely to pay attention to the music and the opera."
In addition, family productions are more interactive; in some instances youngsters from the audience are even invited to join performers onstage. Other productions, such as Levine School of Music's "The Elves and the Shoemaker," are performed entirely by kids. "When children see kids performing, they think, `they're performing that for me,'" Evans says.
Students in "The Elves and the Shoemaker," ranging in age from 7 to 11, have been together since September. Part of Levine's Children's Opera Workshop, the group has studied operatic song, dance, movement and dialogue.
At a recent rehearsal, 11-year-old Kelly Anthony of Falls Church practiced her role as a "mean customer." "The workmanship is very fine, the leather has a lovely shine. And so because the shoes are nice, we'll pay you quite a goodly price," she sang.
An aspiring singer who takes piano and clarinet lessons, Anthony has performed at Adventure Theater in "Fiddler on the Roof," "Pinocchio" and "Huckleberry Finn." But this is her first opera. During the 16-week class taught by Victoria Redfearn Cave, Anthony says she has learned "how to breathe, not to sing from your nose, to sing from your stomach or chest. And," she adds, "to be really big on stage."
Being big on stage is certainly associated with the opera. But so are wealthy patrons. However, the image of opera is changing, Evans says. Opera companies are working to make this supposedly highbrow art form accessible to diverse audiences, through community outreach efforts, education programs that introduce student audiences to what happens behind-the-scenes and by creating a presence on the Internet where families can listen to sound clips, read synopses of story lines, even take a virtual backstage tour of the opera house. And many more productions are now presented in English.
Next month's performances of three Mozart operas at the Kennedy Center will not be performed in English but still have kid appeal. That is because the actors in "The Magic Flute," "Don Giovanni" and "The Marriage of Figaro" are all wooden puppets. Youngsters should pack their opera glasses to truly appreciate the lavishly costumed, intricately carved Salzburg Marionettes. Although the productions are abridged, the operas are more than two hours and are best suited for 8-year-olds and older. The performances provide an excellent introduction to classical music and to the fanciful world of a Mozart opera.
Whether your child is into Papageno or Bullwinkle, the coming months offer numerous opportunities to try out an opera.
KENNEDY CENTER -- The Salzburg Marionette Theater will perform three Mozart operas. Recommended for ages 8 and older. "The Magic Flute" on Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 26 at 2 p.m.; "Don Giovanni" on Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. and Feb. 27 at 2 p.m.; "The Marriage of Figaro" on Feb. 26 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. New Hampshire Avenue and Rock Creek Parkway. 202/467-4600. Web site: www.kennedy-center.org. $40 each or all three operas for $100.
LEVINE SCHOOL OF MUSIC -- Participants in the Children's Opera Workshop will present the operetta "The Elves and the Shoemaker" Jan. 21 at 7 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 11 a.m. at Westover Baptist Church's Hardison Hall, 1125 North Patrick Henry Dr., Arlington. 703/237-5655. Levine's Web site is www.levineschool.org. Free.
OPERA THEATRE OF NORTHERN VIRGINIA -- The Washington-area premiere of "Les Moose: The Operatic Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle," for children ages 6 and older, is Jan. 29 at 2 and 4:15 p.m. (Between shows artistic director John Edward Niles will answer questions from the audience.) Thomas Jefferson Community Center, 125 S. Old Glebe Rd., Arlington. 703/528-1433 or 703/527-0006. $20 and $10 for adults, $5 students. Group rates available.
VIRGINIA OPERA -- The Northern Virginia premiere of "Cinderella" will be presented featuring professional performers and a student cast from the City of Alexandria in the roles of step-siblings, birds, guests and servants. March 25 at 4 p.m. Nannie J. Lee Recreation Center, 1108 Jefferson St., Alexandria. 703/352-7515. Free. "Pied Piper of Hamelin" will be performed April 18 at 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. at the Alden Theatre, McLean Community Center, 1234 Ingleside Ave., McLean. 703/790-9223 or 703/790-0123. Web site: www.mclean center.org. Tickets $7. As part of the Fairfax County Spotlight on the Arts festival, "The New Adventures of Alice in Opera Land" will be presented April 22 (time to be announced) at Lanier Middle School, 3710 Bavan Dr., Fairfax. 703/352-7515. Free. All of these Virginia Opera performances are recommended for kindergartners through sixth-graders. The opera's Web site is www.vaopera.org.
THE WASHINGTON OPERA -- The Washington Opera will offer a Saturday-morning library program on "Little Red Riding Hood" on March 25 from 11 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Recommended for ages 6 and older. Chevy Chase Library, 8005 Connecticut Ave., Chevy Chase, Md. 301/986-4313. Free. In addition, auditions will be held March 21-22 for this summer's four-week Opera Camp for Kids (for ages 10-14), offered in collaboration with the Wolf Trap Opera Company. The camp concludes with free public performances of "Brundibar" by Hans Krasa Aug. 19-20. 202/295-2463. The Washington Opera Web site is www.dc-opera.org.