Try Googling “American Youth Opera Companies,” and you’ll come up with organizations that have Apprentice Programs for young singers, operas written for young voices, operas written for adults to sing and to be heard by young audiences, but less than a handful of companies that actually have, as a branch of their organization, an “Opera Company” that trains school-age kids to sing operas written for both adults and children. Chief among them: Sarasota Opera.
In existence for 30 years, the Sarasota Youth Opera has been training thousands of children, from the age of 8 through seniors in high school, to pronounce foreign languages, match tones, listen to music, understand what Opera is, act, dance, move and, as they grow, learn about real singing.
The Youth Opera is used as the children’s chorus during the regular season of the Sarasota Opera, giving children and teens the opportunity to participate in grand opera. Best of all, these kids have a chance, every year, to perform for their families, friends, peers and total strangers in works that have been written, specifically, for young voices that can be enjoyed by everyone.
Lots of very famous composers have written staged works for children to perform and attend, from Bruce Adolphe, Elie Siegmeister, Gian Carlo Menotti and Douglas Moore, to Libby Larson, Victor Herbert, John Rutter and Aaron Copland. Even Mozart put his youthful hand to youthful operas. (I can’t include Humperdinck in this list because, even though his “Hansel and Gretel” is an adult and youthful favorite, it’s principal parts were written for big, mature voices to sing over a Wagnerian orchestra, something young children and even teens should never attempt.)
But Sarasota Opera has its very own Youth Opera. It’s a place where youngsters showing musical talent with a proclivity toward singing, can audition and get careful, early training in all the things opera calls for: acting, dancing, moving, singing, musicianship, poise and listening.
Jesse Martins, the conductor and music director of the Sarasota Youth Opera, has worked with Artistic Director Victor deRenzi since 2011. You’ll remember him from last year, when he made his conducting debut in Sarasota with Britten’s “The Little Sweep.” But he’s also trained the children’s choruses for such masterpieces as “Carmen,” “Otello,” and “Turandot.”
The human voice is a fragile thing and, if it’s not trained and used properly, it can easily be destroyed. Young voices are particularly delicate and it can be dangerous to train them too early. Whatever Jesse Martins is doing with his Youth Opera kids, though, seems to be right because the singing in this year’s production of “The Hobbit,” was exemplary. Using gentle amplification for some of the young voices helped because it kept the kids from over-singing, while allowing them to project words and sounds into the sold-out Opera House.
Based on the famous Tolkien stories, with music and libretto by Dean Burry, “The Hobbit” is sung in English (with English surtitles) and, in some cases, easier to understand than the books or movies. The cast we saw at last Saturday evening’s performance featured almost 100 children including Dominique Cecchetti, as Bilbo Baggins, a part that was double-cast, with Sarah Levison taking the role the following day. There was a sprinkling of adults from the main company’s Apprentice and Studio Artist program taking on the roles of the larger or older creatures. But it was the kids who won the day.
We were particularly impressed by the half-dozen Elf Maidens (Katherine Herbert, Adriana Fernandez, Sophia Masterson, Lauren Cash, Sadie Fox and Aubree Zern), who drifted in and out of the action like the Spirits in Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” all in excellent voice and almost perfect harmony.
Winning the day with all those kids was stage director Martha Collins, who used her ample imagination and theatrical instincts to pull-off a dramatically gratifying performance. Having almost 100 children on stage must be a little like herding puppies but Collins made them into a professional theatrical troupe, while Martins (with first-rate help from members of the Sarasota Orchestra in the pit) turned them into a well-balanced musical ensemble.
Special mention must be made of the ingenuity of scenic designer Jeffrey Dean; costume designer, B.G. FitzGerald; lighting designer Ken Yunker; and hair and make-up designer, Dave Bova. Together, they made magic by turning children into dwarves, elves and goblins; a super-dragon named Smaug (played by Studio Artist William Roberts with mystical creatures beneath his wings) into a lovable monster; and turned Old Bilbo (Justin John Moniz, an Apprentice) into an unforgettable creation that’s bound to turn youthful audiences into future opera lovers.