Several hundred Western North Carolina school children recently experienced their first taste of opera through a familiar childhood tale, thanks to an outreach program involving faculty and students in the voice program in the School of Music at Western Carolina University.
Student performers presented the opera “Little Red Riding Hood” by Seymour Barab to children from schools in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, with seven performances in March and April.
The show, about 50 minutes in length and geared toward children in grades one through five, featured a cast of student singers from WCU’s “Opera Workshop” class. The project began last fall semester as students, who were required to commit to the project for an entire academic year, auditioned for roles, learned the score and rehearsed. They went back to work in January to polish the performance and acquire costumes and modest sets and props.
The students altered the original score to suit the production, re-wrote the opening monologue and updated the opera with the use of cell phones and other modern items, said Mary Kay Bauer, WCU associate professor of voice and director of the show.
Students also encouraged improvisation throughout the shows and utilized a concept of performing where there was no “fourth wall,” with characters entering the stage from the audience and asking the children to get involved, Bauer said.
“This has been a great learning experience for our students,” she said. “Usually in the School of Music, we work and work to prepare a performance that is done only once. But here our students worked and worked and were able to perform seven times for different audiences and in completely different locations.”
The opera performances also have proven to be good experiences for the children who saw the shows.
About 160 Highlands School children in grades kindergarten through five, approximately 80 children aged 2 to 5 from area child care centers and nearly 60 adults were “delighted” by shows at the First Presbyterian Church in Highlands, said Angie Jenkins, organist and music coordinator at the church.
“I am a firm believer that it is very important for their development to expose children to different types of music and musical instruments throughout their childhood because this greatly aids their development in many ways,” Jenkins said. “It is our hope that in the future the WCU School of Music will put on another children’s opera and will again bring it to the children of Highlands.”
A few days after the shows in Highlands, nearly 330 children and 32 teachers enjoyed performances of “Little Red Riding Hood” in Swain County, leaving the show with comments such as “awesome,” “wow,” “I loved it” and “that was the best,” said Jenny L. Johnson, director of the Swain County Center for the Arts.
“It was especially clever how important life skills, such as not speaking to a stranger and not inviting a stranger into your home, were made a natural part of the story line,” Johnson said. “The piano sound effects made the show come to life in a creative and lively way. All the actors were superb in their roles and the costuming was delightfully realistic. I personally enjoyed the modern twist to an old story with the cell phones.”
The WCU troupe also performed “Little Red Riding Hood” at Cullowhee Valley and Fairview Elementary schools in Jackson County, with a another performance on campus for WCU students, faculty and staff.