Sarasota Youth Opera productions such as “Rootabaga Country” teach valuable skills.
Not many high schoolers can say they played a popcorn-covered plumber in a full-fledged opera.
But Lane Hubbard can after his latest role in “Rootabaga Country,” and that’s just one of many unique opportunities he and his fellow performers are awarded through the Sarasota Youth Opera.
The program began in 1984 as a way to introduce young people to opera, but what it has become is the only youth opera in the U.S. that puts on a fully staged youth production every year. It’s also a program in which children and teens in the Sarasota-Bradenton area can learn to sing, make lasting friendships and develop vital life skills.
“I don’t think I would have been able to be as confident as I am today if it weren’t for being in the youth opera,” says member Katherine Herbert. “I learned leadership and mentorship and compassion and that was really important to me.”
Herbert began the program as a 9-year-old who had just recently started voice lessons, but had been listening to classical music and opera her whole life. Her lack of singing experience was irrelevant, however, because no audition was required. She simply showed up for an enrollment session, checked it out, and she was hooked.
Ever since that day, she says, she’s basically lived at the Sarasota Opera House.
What kept her coming back were her fellow performers, teachers and everyone else involved who became a second family. Hubbard, who joined after all his siblings went through the program, agrees.
“I decided to stay because I really enjoy the music and the relationships I’ve built with the people here,” he says. “I have a lot of fun at every rehearsal — we always end up laughing about one thing or another.”
The men who keep the 89-member program running are Director of Education Ben Jewell-Plocher and Music Director Jesse Martins, and both are getting the group’s latest production, “Rootabaga Country,” audience-ready.
This is the youth opera’s six world premiere, but unlike previous commissioned works, there was a competition held to find the perfect composer/librettist.
After a two-year process, the winner was Rachel J. Peters and her adaptation of several American fairy tales by Carl Sandburg, which she strung together by adding an overarching storyline to make a full-length youth opera.
The story follows its main character, Gimme The Ax, and his two children, Please Gimme and Ax Me No Questions, as the kids begin to ask about their deceased mother, Alelia.
To help his children get to know their late mother, Gimme The Ax decides to sell all their possessions and buy one-way tickets on the Zigzag Railroad to Alelia’s favorite place, Rootabaga Country.
“This one was fun,” Jewell-Plocher says. “The way Rachel was approaching the subject matter was both clever and smart. She wasn’t trying to dumb it down, which is what we want. We don’t give kids enough credit.”
Jewell-Plocher says it’s common to find youth operas that don’t challenge the performers enough, but by working closely with Peters, he and Martins were able to ensure the production will show off their students’ strengths.
Hubbard calls the show extraordinary and almost supernatural, while Herbert describes “Rootabaga Country” as quirky and funny, with several touching moments.
“It really is a show about being a family and loving each other no matter what the circumstances are,” Herbert says.
Jewell-Plocher says the show’s message about how families come in all shapes and sizes led them to partner with Embracing Our Differences, the local nonprofit that teaches inclusivity and acceptance through the arts, to provide a third show Nov. 13 for local students.
There will be no cost for the students to attend this show — the buses that will provide transport were paid for by Embracing Our Differences. The show will cover several state standards regarding immigration and accepting people who are different than you.
This is why the opera worked with Embracing Our Differences to make a Teacher Resource Guide to use in the classroom before seeing the opera, so students could make the most out of the performance experience.
Other than being an educational experience for the audience, “Rootabaga Country” also offers an insightful experience for performers like Hubbard and Herbert.
Every youth opera production is organized with the same care and attention to detail that’s put into the opera’s main stage productions. The students aren’t professionals, but the costume designers, stage managers, lighting experts, makeup artists and all the other production staffers who make the show possible are professionals.
Hubbard says that because youth opera students get to witness all the different jobs and aspects of an operatic production, they learn about the different career paths they could take — everything from sound direction to wig design.
This is Hubbard’s last year in the program before he ages out, but he plans to come back and help with the opera’s summer camp so more children learn the ins and outs of the art form that has inspired him to pursue a career in vocal acting.
Herbert, who is also in her last year, says most youth opera students don’t end up as professional opera singers, but many go into music or theater in some capacity. She hopes to do the same.
“It’s had such a big impact on my life growing up. I love it so much — I don’t know what else I could be.”
Looking back, she says she never let that her love of opera falter, even when she was teased for it in junior high.
“I was like, ‘Whatever, I can sing my high C’s.’”