by Sara Heaton
Most opera fans vividly remember their first encounter with opera. Heck, even most non-opera fans remember their first encounter with opera! It’s not something one easily forgets. In addition to the grandness of it all, there’s that visceral experience of hearing the human voice create a sound so powerful, so emotional, and so beyond anything you could have imagined that sticks with you. It’s usually a make-or-break moment, the turning point when you either dive headfirst into opera obsession, or do a 180 and opt for alternate musical genres.
Judging by what I do now, that moment was clearly of the former variety. I was five when I attended my first opera, my parents having the genius intuition that their young daughter would a) be able to quietly sit through a whole opera, and b) that Carmen would make a good first impression. Right they were. The story goes that I walked out of the opera and claimed, “I want to be Carmen when I grow up!” Mission accomplished.
It was thrilling to be on the other side of that equation a few months ago in a concert designed to introduce opera to young kids. The Met Chorus Artists were invited by the Howland Chamber Music Circle in Beacon, NY to present a concert on their Classics for Kids series. Four times a year, the chamber series brings world-renowned classical musicians to perform family-centered concerts for Hudson Valley residents in the beautiful and historic Howland Cultural Center, an 1872 Richard Morris Hunt building originally used as a circulating library, now a center for cultural enrichment in the City of Beacon, a thriving town in the Hudson Valley. The wood-domed ceiling lends itself perfectly to chamber music and, as we found, operatic voices.
On a Sunday afternoon in February, five members of The Met Chorus Artists, accompanied by pianist Carol Wong, played to a packed house with audience members ranging in age from less than one to over sixty. The theme of the concert was the operatic voice and what it can do. We entered singing the Act IV opening chorus of Carmen, an easily recognizable tune with an exciting finale. Chorister Nathan Carlisle served double duty as both performer and Master of Ceremonies, seamlessly moving the program along while connecting with the audience in a genuine and personable way.
We gave them examples of the extremes of the operatic voice. We showed how sometimes we sing really high (soprano Lianne Coble-Dispensa belted out a super-loud high note)! Sometimes we sing super fast (baritone Ross Benoliel wowed them with “Figaro la, Figaro qua …”)! We gave examples of arias, explaining the different voice types, and of what it sounds like when we sing all together, giving a rendition of the finale from Le Nozze di Figaro.
The goal of the performance was to help the audience understand how opera conveys emotion through the music, allowing us to understand what the character is experiencing even if we don’t understand their words. To help with this task, we brought along something every opera singer loves -- props! Ours were emoji faces (oh-so-very au courant) that depicted three emotions: sad, happy, and in love. The kids loved guessing which emoji the singer was experiencing. Then Nathan picked a few kids to pick an emoji out of hat, and whichever emotion they picked, we sang a corresponding aria. To finish off the performance, we blew their socks off with the final chorus from Candide, “Make Our Garden Grow.”
By far the most gratifying part of the day was seeing the reactions across the kids faces in the audience -- awe, fascination, bright smiles, and, in some cases, hands over the ears. Several piped up to ask questions, or share their experiences with opera or singing in general. We had the pleasure to speak with many of them after the performance, posing for photos with budding opera fans, or talking to their parents about their appreciation of what we had brought to Beacon that day. Akiko Sasaki, board member of the Howland Chamber Music Circle, had this to say about the performance: “The Met Chorus Artists presented a spectacular concert at Classics for Kids! This concert was an introduction to opera for many kids and families. It was so thrilling to see everyone enchanted and enraptured by their performance. Everyone left the concert wanting to hear more opera!”
For those in attendance that day, it certainly wasn’t everyone’s first operatic experience (there were even some adults that came without children just to hear some opera)!. But for those kids and adults who got their first taste of opera, who knows? It could have planted a seed that will grow into a lifelong love of the art form. In the meantime, we’re all thankful for our fulfilling experience in Beacon, and look forward to future outreach opportunities!
Sara Heaton began her Met career in 2014 in the Extra Chorus, and joined as a full time member in 2016. When not singing, Sara enjoys cooking, gardening, exploring the outdoors, and tasting her husband’s cocktail creations. They’re proud to make their home in Beacon, NY in the beautiful Hudson Valley.