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Arts and Entertainment Wednesday, Oct. 31, 2018 2 weeks ago

Sarasota Youth Opera students help audience change their tune about the art

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‘The Little Sweep’ cast wants to prove that opera is cooler than its stereotype.
by: Niki Kottmann Managing Editor of Arts and Entertainment

Opera has sort of ruined pop music for the cast of “The Little Sweep.”

“It’s so boring now,” says Genevieve Dilan, who plays Juliette. “When I want to go on a run I’ll turn on some Nicki Minaj or whatever, but when I’m sitting in my car and there’s a beautiful sunset and I just want to feel stuff, I’ll turn on some opera.”

“The words (of pop songs) carry so much less meaning,” Ashley Lewis, who plays Rowan, adds. “With opera you get such a variety, such a spectrum — the turmoil the characters are going through or the happiness.”

These Sarasota Youth Opera members, who all have character roles in the upcoming production of “The Little Sweep,”  have learned the true power of textured orchestral music. And they can’t wait to help audiences gain the same appreciation they have for opera. 

Classic Trailblazers

Sarasota Youth Opera is the only program in the United States committed to presenting annual full-scale opera productions for young vocalists, accepting anyone who wishes to participate regardless of skill level.

This is the third time the group has performed “The Little Sweep,” and Music Director Jesse Martins says that’s because it’s not only part of the organization’s standard repertoire, it’s also a perfect fit for a youth opera that refuses to dumb down the music 

just because its performers are children.

The program book art was created by veteran Sarasota Youth Opera vocalist Pablo González. Courtesy image

Unlike many children’s theater shows, this audience won’t consist of parents who felt obligated to come see their child perform. Stage Director Martha Collins says instead, it will be full of opera fans of varying ages because everyone can identify with the main character’s plight and appreciate the complexity of composer Benjamin Britten’s music.

“Britten has written something that’s so creative and imaginative and right for kids’ voices, but still challenges them,” says Collins. “It’s so musically satisfying … It’s immediately accessible because of the melody, but it’s also tantalizing because of the colors he uses in the orchestra.”

The story of “The Little Sweep” follows Sammy, a young boy sent to apprentice Big Bob the chimney sweeper. Little did his poor parents know that Big Bob is a cruel old man who their son would later need to be saved from — with the help of a nursery maid and a group of brave children.

“We’re all marshmallows at heart,” Collins adds. “So that wonder and magic and charm of these kids saving him — we all fall in love with that moment. It’s genuinely touching.”

Britten’s original opera is much longer, is set in England and requires the audience to sing the chorus. This version is adapted to make it set in Boston with a shorter run time. Oh, and don’t worry, nobody in the crowd will be asked to sing.

Cast Members Sam Stahlmann, Pablo González, Sophia Thurman, Genevieve Dilan and Ashley Lewis — Photo by Cliff Roles

Collins had to write her own prologue to set up the adaptation. The goal of this prelude to the main action is to teach audiences what goes into the making of an opera — going so far as building part of the set in front of the audience.

She says that’s the part that’s most magical for many viewers, most of whom have never watched a set be built.

The prologue is also flexible, and musical adjustments are made to suit the group’s varying voices every year. Martins says anyone who last saw “The Little Sweep” in 2013 will be seeing a substantially different show for the first half because of changes made to the music.

In It Together

Music Director Jesse Martins conducts kids from Sarasota, Manatee, Hillsborough and Lee Counties. Courtesy photo

Asked what the show means to them, the young performers agreed it encourages kids to be brave and stand up for what they believe in.

“The kids save the day in this,” Lewis says. “Everyone wants to be a hero, and here that’s the kids. That’s not usually the case.”

Collins agrees, saying the message of the show is that if kids work together, the good they can produce is endless. That importance of teamwork is also true for opera as an art form, because she says opera isn’t possible without collaboration. All the elements — lighting, sound, set design, costumes, makeup, etc. — and singers have to come together to tell a story.

Dilan notes “The Little Sweep” works well because of not only the great youth opera team, but because the main character is so easy to root for. It seems impossible not to cheer on little Sammy.

The lead role is played by first-time character vocalist Sophia Thurman, who’s excited to show kids in the audience that opera is much cooler than they’ve been led to believe.

“Kids laughed at me in my church youth group for saying I do opera,” Thurman says. “I said, ‘You try it.’”

(Unfortunately, there was no microphone on the music stand in front of her to drop at the end of that statement.)

Sophia Thurman stars as Sammy in her first Sarasota Youth Opera role. Photo by Cliff Roles

Veteran youth opera member Pablo González, who played Sammy in the 2013 production and is back as Alfred, says he wants people to know opera isn’t a Viking lady on a boat singing onstage. There are several stereotypical representations of the art portrayed on TV, in movies, etc., but in reality it’s something much more accessible and enjoyable.

His castmate and fellow longtime youth opera member Sam Stahlmann, who plays Tom, says the program fights that very stigma.

“Kids these days aren’t as exposed to opera so there’s not much of an interest in it,” Stahlmann says. “So it’s important to have a program like this where they can get invested in it now so that when they’re older the artform doesn’t die.”

The Next Generation

One way the group is helping pass on an appreciation for opera is through collaborations like its current one with local nonprofit Embracing Our Differences. On Nov. 5, the group will put on a morning performance of “The Little Sweep” that’s solely for Sarasota and Manatee counties students in first through fifth grades.

Tickets to the now sold-out show are covered by Sarasota Opera and busing is provided by Embracing Our Differences, so students get a full-fledged performance experience at no cost to them or the schools they attend.

The students received a packet containing the history and context of the show, Collins says, so they’re going in with the knowledge they need to not only enjoy the production but ponder its message and the importance of opera as an artform.

“I love performing for the kids,” Stahlmann says. “They react more honestly than a regular audience.”

“And they’re more quiet,” Martin says with a laugh, noting that they’re surprisingly less chatty than the group’s traditional adult audience.

The music director also notes the youth opera has received more and more kids in its regular show audiences, which is probably due in part to the organization producing more operas in English. But he hopes it’s also a sign that more young people are gaining an interest.

Hopefully some of those young audience members will see the wide range of ages onstage, Martin says, and realize the youth opera is a unique opportunity to become friends with and learn from students older than them as well as those their own age.

Sarasota Youth Opera rehearses, on-average, 35 weeks and 538 hours per season (August through April). Photo by Cliff Roles

“I think it also helps them because the older kids know the younger kids look up to them, and it helps with behavior in a way,” he says.

Stahlmann says he was unsure of what it would be like to interact with kids of varying ages when he joined seven years ago as a homeschool student, but now he feels like part of a family of performers who never made him feel like an “annoying little kid.”

Even though the kids they’re trying to attract to the program are most likely used to singing along to Top 40 pop hits rather than opera compositions, Dilan says young people of any age can appreciate operatic singing if they give it a chance.

“I think there’s something so innately beautiful about the human voice that even if you don’t understand the language, there is emotion that’s carried in the voice that anyone can understand. And I think it’s so important to expose yourself to that and not carry the stigma that opera sucks.”

I'm the Managing Editor of Arts & Entertainment here, which means I write, edit and share stories about our multifaceted A&E scene in Sarasota. I graduated from the University of Missouri with a Bachelor of Journalism and a French minor. Reach me at 941-366-3468 ext. 356

See All Articles by Niki

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