Looney Tunes, Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies taught my wee ears how to listen, how to synthesize the music in my imagination with color, movement, emotion and irony. It was like a crash-bang-boom course in how to read sound: The vastness of Wagner became suddenly legible in the context of wabbit-killing.
Kids today are a bit more hands-on, as I discovered during a recent session of “Opera Starts With Oh!,” an opera education program for ages 3 to 7, run by the D.C. and NYC-based company Opera Lafayette.
Admittedly, preschoolers, Zoom and opera don’t immediately sound like the makings of a successful project, but each installment I watched of “Opera Starts With Oh!” — helmed by director, choreographer and teaching artist Emma Jaster and Opera Lafayette community engagement manager Ersian François — kept its grid of budding opera buffs rapt with an action-packed half-hour of activities, performances and assorted operatic antics.
“Opera Starts With Oh!” originated in 2018 as an in-person program to accompany productions in progress, but in its Zoom-based incarnation, each themed installment (titles include “Character and Emotion,” “All About the Bass,” “Zing! Zing! Zing! Violin”) centers on a visit from a guest artist and a simple lesson, which can be further explored through a supplemental heap of online homework — oops, I mean at-home activities.
Recent stoppers-by include gambaist Motomi Igarashi, soprano Ariana Douglas and Opera Lafayette violinist Leslie Nero. Forthcoming workshops will host soprano Vanessa Aldrich (Aug. 19) and Ramya Durvasula and Ritika Reddy of the Kalanidhi Dance Company (Aug. 26). Workshops are pay-what-you-can, begin at 11:30 a.m. and require registration.
At a recent workshop, the Zoom grid filled up fast with small faces smooshed into the frame. It was easily the most entertaining Zoom meeting I’ve had since this whole thing started.
Lucy and Phoebe were sporting matching unicorn horns and dancing in circles whenever music played. Theodor was paying attention but kept changing his background — first it was outer space, then it was a hedgehog. Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy all crammed attentively into one square. Jaster led a round of warm-up exercises (her 6-year-old Ellis popping in and out of view), Nero performed the Passacaille from Lully’s “Armide” (a performance of which Opera Lafayette recorded in 2007) and François skillfully moderated a quick Q&A session (turns out kids are way better at the muting/unmuting thing than adults).
By the end of it, Helen, who had been pretty quiet up to that point, politely raised her hand, unmuted, and let the group know: “I think I want to play the violin.”
“You think, ‘Oh, opera. How on Earth are we gonna get them to engage?’ ” says Phoebe and Lucy’s grandfather Michael Tooke (and apparently not from the unicorn side of the family) in a post-workshop Zoom. “But, rather than trying to figure out who Lucia was and why her brother didn’t like her, they give the basic elements of movement, emotion, dance and how much fun it is to play an instrument. Very, very simple. It’s been very rewarding for our girls.”
Phoebe, 4, was especially moved by Douglas’s performance a few weeks ago of “Così va, turbe insane, così va” from Stradella’s “La Susanna.”
“I didn’t get to attend my first opera until I was about 26 years old, particularly because it’s a pretty expensive endeavor to attend an opera,” says Natalia Lopez-Hurst, mother of Gabriel, Massimo and Timothy. “So I wanted to start my kids early with the exposure. I feel like opera encompasses so many different forms of art … We use it as a steppingstone to teach them about art, as well as history, as well as geography.”
For Jaster, the kinetic goals of the workshop are as important as the aesthetic ones.
“I’m a movement director and choreographer, that’s how I came to opera,” says Jaster, “But I have a 5-year-old and I live and witness every day how much children need to move their bodies. Now that we’re mostly confined to the same places every day, our bodies start to sink and settle into smaller and smaller habits.”
Thus, much of the unbound energy that animates an average “Opera Starts With Oh!” is channeled into twirling, interpretive dance, vocal exercises and functional training (like “finger ripples”) for aspiring virtuosos (like Helen?).
The goal is to give them something to do today, but also something to look forward to tomorrow.
“What’s a fun way to take what we’ve learned and make it something that these children will do and be engaged with beyond and outside of this 30 minutes?” says Jaster. “As a parent, 30 minutes is not a lot of the time that I actually need to occupy from my child’s day. So the more the children can be inspired to take this along and then go and make their own performance for all of their stuffed animals — that’s where I want to be.”
For more information visit operalafayette.org.
Wolf Trap’s virtual Field Trip Fridays program concluded last month, but the genre-spanning videos, performed and recorded by Wolf Trap Teaching Artists, are still viewable online and include kid-friendly explorations of puppetry, African music and opera. Recommended if your young one has lingering questions about Little Miss Muffet.
Tanglewood’s fields might be off limits this season, but its 2020 Online Series has been a lively mix of prerecorded and remotely streamed performances, including Tanglewood For Kids. Participants can learn about composers, hear streamed performances and try all out all kinds of activities, crafts, recipes and videos. (And you can lay your blanket wherever you want.)
If your kid is already working on her third concerto between kindergarten obligations, turn her online attention toward the New York Philharmonic’s Very Young Composers page, which features a library of videos and musical explorations of everything from Beethoven’s Ninth to Julia Wolfe’s “Fire in my mouth.”