With arts education budgets being slashed from elementary schools across the nation, it looks like the audience of the tomorrow is in jeopardy. One local gem of the Bay Area opera scene is trying to change this situation one elementary school at a time.
San Francisco based Opera Parallèle specializes in new chamber works and is in the third year of an arts education program called “Hands-on-Opera.” The initiative involves an eight-week residency at a Bay Area elementary school in which students learn to put on a short opera complete with a conductor and a stage director, and then perform it before an audience.
This year, the company is working with fourth and fifth graders from Saint Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland on the world premiere of composer Christopher Pratorius’ Amazing Grace, based on British author Mary Hoffman’s book of the same name. The 30-minute-long work tells the story of an optimistic girl named Grace who tries out for the role of Peter Pan even though her classmates think she is unsuitable for the part.
Pratorius teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz (UCSC) and at Cal State Monterey Bay. He’s also Opera Parallèle’s composer in residence.
Pratorius answered some questions about this work — it’s his second children’s opera — and the program that is bringing it to life.
How did you become involved with Opera Parallèle as composer in residence?
I’ve known artistic director Nicole Paiement and creative director Brian Staufenbiel since I was an undergraduate student at UCSC — they both were faculty members at the school. Nicole and Brian always champion young composers and new music in general, and as such we formed relationships in which I was able to grow as a composer. In a way, from my perspective, this is a logical culmination of musical dialogues that have been carried out over the last 15 years.
Amazing Grace is the second of three operas you’ve been commissioned to compose for Opera Parallèle. How did you decide on topics for your children’s operas?
These first two operas librettos were developed by Opera Parallèle and then brought to me to set, which I have found to be a really wonderful way to work. I’ve asked the musicians who’ve commissioned works in the past to choose the text, because in this way I’m working outside of my comfort zone, and that ends up prompting new musical ideas.
Have you considered writing one of these operas in Spanish, since you are a native speaker of this language?
In regards to a Spanish language opera, I would prefer a bilingual opera, something that reflects my experiences growing up. I’m certain that will happen at some point.
What is the rationale behind Hands-On-Opera? Is it a method of building a new audience for contemporary opera?
From my perspective, the primary goal is to not only bring music and opera to the specific kids we work with in these productions, but also to develop repertoire that can be used in the future to work with children in this manner.
The repertoire we are developing is unique in that it presents attractive and singable music for the children and more sophisticated and difficult music for the adult singers without the sense that it’s stereotypical kid’s music. The goal for me was to use the musical language I always use to tell stories that resonate with children. I think some of the arias are as musically interesting and sophisticated as settings I’ve done of Neruda or Garcia Lorca.
It’s also very important to me that all people envision that doors are open to them, including those of the opera house. Opera is for everyone.
How many children are participating? Do the children play in the orchestra?
I believe we have about 20 kids in the production, and they form the choir; they do not play instruments.
What are the particular challenges of working with children?
In my mind, the challenges are the same ones our teachers face every day. Maintaining focus and motivation, teaching kids to work towards long term goals, and of course dealing with the burden kids face of trying to excel in school while enduring difficult circumstances at home and in their communities. They are the same challenges all educators face, I think. The pay offs, for kids and adults alike, are huge: the joy of sharing music, the great lessons of working as a team, and of course the magic of performing art in front of an audience.
Amazing Grace will performed at the African American Art and Culture Complex, 762 Fulton Street (at Webster), San Francisco on Nov. 12, 6:00 pm and Nov. 14, 11:00 am and 1:00 pm.