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Dawn Martens.

Forget High School Musical, the film. How about Elementary School Opera, the reality show? Every April for 16 years, music teacher Dawn Martens has mounted an opera at Buchanan Park Elementary School in Hamilton, Ont. Every child in the school takes part. Costumes appear out of rags and tatters. Scenery is sawed and painted as an entire community of teachers, students and parents is welded together through staging such productions as The Magic Piccolo, Carmencita and even Don Giovanni. This year, they tackled Die Fledermaus.


And the taxpayers aren't out a dime. The producer is the Buchanan Park Opera Club (BPOC), whose members fund-raise in many creative ways. "Have a wienie for Puccini" hot-dog barbecues abound, T-shirts are sold and the kids make Opera Oinkers, porker dolls dressed as opera characters that are sold in the lobby of Hamilton Place during Opera Hamilton performances. Ben Heppner has a Pigoletto, while Placido Domingo has a Stinkerton and a Madama Buttersow. "I even have a board of directors that is the envy of the opera world. With a little ice cream and some Smarties, I can bribe the lot of them," says Martens with a laugh.

The proceeds from each annual five-performance, standing-room-only run go to McMaster University's Medical Centre, which has been enriched by more that $40,000 for its work in childhood cancer over the years.

Martens has directed plays since she was six. "We put them on in our driveway," she recalls. "We had big sheets for curtains and charged everyone 10 cents. We had costumes in a playhouse out the back." She can't recall any of the plays. "We probably made them up as we went along, invited the parents and made them pay to watch!"

Although she is a church organist as well as a music teacher and most of the BPOC "orchestra" on piano, her degrees were in art history and history as well as in education. And her first experience of opera was a disaster. "I was in Moscow on a history trip and we went to the opera at the Bolshoi," she remembers. "I thought I would die before it ended."

It wasn't until going to Opera Hamilton's Popera, an evening of opera's greatest hits, and hearing Claude Corbeil singing the Catalogue aria from Don Giovanni that she connected with the emotions, music and the fun that opera embraces.

In fact, Opera Hamilton is central to Martens' story. "I hope Canadians realize how important regional opera companies can be," she says. She achieved an intimate relationship with Opera Hamilton because it was close by and she could regularly take her students there. "I could never have afforded to bus my kids into Toronto," she says. "We try to do an opera from Opera Hamilton's season--that's happened pretty much every year. The children get to see a professional production of the opera they are going to do or have just done. If they've just done it, they go, 'Hey, they left out the dancing birthday cake. 'Then they learn you can do things that interpret a story your own way. If they haven't done it yet, they get to see who they'll be on stage and they're fascinated." In fact, in 1999, when Brian Deedrick, Artistic Director of Edmonton Opera, came to Hamilton to direct Aula (which the BPOC was also mounting), Martin says, "He actually had our principals up on stage with him, watching him direct."

But the ongoing, constant contact with Opera Hamilton, for which Martens also gives pre-performance lectures, is particularly important to the BPOC. Peter Oleskevich, for example, Opera Hamilton's Chorusmaster and Assistant Conductor, has been irreplaceable in explaining opera and making it fun. And the example of tenor Eduardo Villa is perhaps the best way to convey the many ways opera can be used to teach the elementary school curriculum.


When Villa came to Opera Hamilton there was a feature article on him in the Hamilton Spectator. It told the story of him winning a singing competition as a U.S. Marine stationed in Hawaii. Guess who else was in Hawaii? The King, and it was Elvis Presley who presented Villa with his prize. Martens asked Villa to come and tell his story to her kids. There was no question of whether he would come or not. The only question was would he ever leave.

Soon there was a huge map of the globe pinned up in Martens' classroom above which the banner read: "Where In The World Is Eduardo Villa?" "If anyone had looked in my desk they'd have thought I was very strange," says Martens, laughing. "I had all these tiny pictures of Eduardo's head." These were pinned to the map wherever Villa was singing. His travel miles were counted. He wrote to the kids about the countries he was in. Even the exchange rate on his fees was calculated.

Martens feels blessed to have Canadian composer David Fawcett on the school staff as the maestro and vocal coach. Fawcett's wife, soprano Elise Bedard, has been invaluable, too. And opera education is, of course, part of the larger curriculum at Buchanan Park. However, this is an era in education in which testing is big, Martens explains. "Testing is very important. You must have standards. But the arts can suffer because the arts are supposed to be what you do after you've passed the tests." At Buchanan Park, however, everything is integrated. It used to be that sports overshadowed arts in educational investment. No more, according to Martens. "Now it's technology," she reports. "And we have been very smart in incorporating technology into our productions," through what Martens describes as "sort of mockumentaries."

The children create PowerPoint presentations and videos. Stage crews create smoke and fog, moon and stars with chemistry and lighting. Elaborate sound effects from the crackling of flames to thunderous eruptions to greet the Queen of the Night are electronically produced by the large backstage staff.

And you're a BPOCer for life. "We have what we call Middle School Mentors and High School Helpers--alumni volunteers who come back every year," says Martens. "We have more of them than we can use."

But how do the children cope with the often very adult themes contained in the plots of the operas they perform? "On the whole, splendidly," says Martens. At the end of a La boheme, a tiny huddle of Junior Kindergarteners were found weeping inconsolably in a corner and Mimi had to be brought in, demonstrably still alive and kicking, before they'd change into their pajamas and go home. "You'd think it would be the comic stuff that would grab the kids. But do you know what their favorites are? The dragging to Hell scene in Don Giovanni and Romeo and Juliet."

At the end of a Romeo and Juliet, the two coffins had to be borne down the stage steps, past the audience in the auditorium and out. "We had gorgeous sprays of flowers donated by a funeral home and I had to keep telling them, 'This is serious. You mustn't laugh.'" remembers Martens. Not a smile was cracked as the kids sorrowfully trudged past the now-weeping adults. But they had to be quickly swept out of earshot lest the triumphant "Yar, har, har! We made them cry!" and the smack of celebratory high fives became audible above the sobs.

"We work them hard," Martens says of the kids. "But it's not a problem. The more you expect, the more the children will deliver. People say to me, 'How can you top that?' But it isn't a question of doing things bigger and better all the time. You do your best with the children you have, and I use them all. If I have a Highland dancer, by golly she's going to dance in Carmen. It's no weirder than what's going on in the opera productions they're doing in Europe.

"We have wonderful examples of diversity in our operas," she adds. In a performing program inspired by Martens' reading book A is for Aria, which her kids illustrated with wonderful artwork (on sale online and at opera houses accross Canada), there were exquisite little East Indian dancers, who returned by popular demand in Die Fledermaus.

The single greatest moment of the 16 years? The waist-high leads of The Merry Little Widow singing "What Do Women Want?" backstage at New York's Metropolitan Opera with none other than Domingo himself at full throttle.

If he's in town, baritone John Fanning wouldn't dream of missing a BPOC production. He's been the Dragon in The. Magic Piccolo and wouldn't hesitate to mount the stage again. "It's an absolute must. The highlight of my opera year," he says. "What they learn so early has very little to do with opera. It's the strength to get up and face an audience--something that will help them all their days. And, through opera, the education just seeps in insidiously. It's how they taught me to dance in my years in Phantom of the Opera," he says. "It just happened by osmosis."

Recently, the operatic pig dolls have morphed, with Martens starting a doll-making club at Buchanan Park. Boys are clamoring--I am going to repeat that--boys are clamoring to join, along with the girls. How come? Every student who has learned with Martens wants the experience to continue. It's always fun, always enthralling and always the epitome of cool. As Martens says, "No dream is too extreme."
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Title Annotation:Meet the Honorees
Author:Fraser, Hugh
Publication:Opera Canada
Geographic Code:5BERM
Date:Sep 22, 2010
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