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Canada's biggest little company.

Two hundred and twenty tiny Egyptians in full costume have just marched into the gym, exuberantly singing "Glory to Egypt." A 10-year-old Pharaoh raises his hands to hush the crowd, and intones, "Radames, you are my greatest warrior. Whatever you wish is my command." "Well, actually," says a shy Radames, "I'd like to hear `Toreador' from Carmen." Whereupon in strides baritone John Fanning, decked out as an elephant, singing Bizet's masterpiece with reckless enthusiasm.

It is moments like this that make teaching magical for me. In my school, Buchanan Park in Hamilton, Ont., I have seen many amazing performances. In fact, my heart has been stirred most profoundly not in great opera houses but on the stage of our school's gym. Perhaps it was when a star like Fanning burst into a scene, or when a small singer finally got that elusive high note, or when a child working with a parent created an original costume, or when lighting cues actually went perfectly, or when the primary chorus eventually sang in unison. They were all triumphs. And through it all shines the joy of children who are not intimidated by opera but are having fun.

Buchanan's opera story began in 1995 when children in Grades 4 and 5 attended a dress rehearsal of Opera Ontario's (then Opera Hamilton's) La Boheme. After the children saw it, they were so full of enthusiasm, they wanted to put on their own opera. And so was born the Buchanan Park Opera Club.

The club's first creation was a version of Puccini's masterpiece that we named La Petite Boheme. The response from everyone--children, parents, the press and Opera Ontario staff--was so enthusiastic that the productions continued: The Magic Piccolo, Carmencita, Popularia (our "best of opera"), Petita Aida, La Traviatina and the opera currently in production, The Merry Little Widow. Each miniature opera stays faithful to the original plot, using children as narrators to summarize the action, with Grade 4 and 5 leads acting out crucial scenes and singing excerpts in English. And our productions move fast. Mimi took only three-quarters of an hour to die, while Aida and Radames were sealed in a tomb after a record-breaking hour and 20 minutes.

How do we manage? First, after countless hours of studying scores and consulting experts, I provide a skeleton script for the students to edit. But the productions would never get beyond that initial stage without the help of a multitude of volunteers who generously donate their time to create costumes and sets, coach acting, choreograph dances, run fundraisers, and beg and borrow whatever we need.

The lead singers audition, then learn pages of dialogue and music by memorizing parts as they listen to the full opera, and singing along to tapes we have made in English. Then comes endless coaching, with help from Opera Ontario chorus members and a gifted tenor on our staff. Finally, we create opera programs with biographies, photos and sponsorship ads for local businesses.

Along the way, as they themselves will tell you, the students acquire valuable life tools: persistence, co-operation, confidence and respect for others. They also learn lessons from the lives of opera characters: jealousy is destructive, love is powerful, tolerance is essential and violence can have tragic results. Moreover, the curriculum is easily combined with opera, as the children gain knowledge about art, geography, history and mathematics. Not only is opera a teacher's dream come true, it also teaches an important lesson in sharing. In four years, we have raised $9,000 for children's cancer research at Chedoke-McMaster Hospital in Hamilton. And surely, from such energetic and creative performances come the audiences--and perhaps some stars--of tomorrow.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Martens, Dawn
Publication:Opera Canada
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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