LA Opera Camp

LA Opera Camp Rocks!

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2014 Production of The White Bird Of Poston by LA Opera Camp participants. Akiko (Elayne Zhou) and Bird (Katie Lee) Photo by Gennia Cui

When we were approached by the LA Opera with an offer to participate in this year’s Summer Camp, I knew it was an amazing opportunity, but had some concerns: Namely, would my 12 year old agree? Opera Camp sounds pretty intense and exclusive. My daughter’s past experience with camp had been extremely limited and not all that positive. So Opera Camp had two things going against from the get go: Opera and Camp.

You see, I’m not exactly a Helicopter Mom. While most Moms whirled around their children shuttling them to countless lessons and classes, camps and play dates, I dragged my daughter around in my adult world where she cut her teeth dining at restaurants with white linens, toasting her father and I with her Philippe Starck sippy cup. Heck, her first word was, “Cheers!” From birth, she was incorporated into our grown up, pre-parent, existence. Signing her up for classes and becoming her personal chauffeur just wasn’t in the cards. I’m more of a Metro Mom, preferring to walk or take public transportation over my suburban, Mom Mobile whenever possible.

Look, maybe you’re nothing like me. Maybe your kids were on sports teams or got music and dance lessons. Maybe you know your kid is the next Pavarotti or Kathleen Battle, maybe you have season tickets to the symphony, opera and ballet, maybe you don’t stand at the back of the auditorium watching your child’s school recital on some other parent’s iPad. For me, in spite of knowing this might be a fantastic fit for my kid, it was clear that it would not be an easy sell to the 12 year old who had just dyed her hair blue.

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Morning drop off at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

I tried to soften the concept of Opera and expand the idea of Camp in my daughter’s mind as the camp dates loomed on the calendar. This year, it was the last two weeks of Summer vacation with 4 performances on the Saturday and Sunday before the first day of the new school year. The night before camp was to start, all the paper work had been submitted, including field trip permission slips, measurements for costumes, media waivers and emergency contact forms. Here was the conversation I’d been dreading:

“Mom. I know this is a great opportunity. I know you really want me to go. I know you already told them I would participate. BUT, these are the last weeks of Summer and I don’t want to go to Opera Camp!”

Me: Deep breath. THINK. Choose your words.

Deep breath. Slow exhale. Don’t push.

Deep breath. Hold. Silence. Release, relinquish resistance.

“Okay. Here’s the thing. You’re right. I understand. BUT, we did commit to this. (pause) You don’t have to sing, if that’s what’s worrying you. You can assist the counselors. We are going in the morning and you can decide at the end of the day. What do you think? Does that feel fair?”

“I can really quit, if I don’t like it?”

“You can really quit if you don’t like it.”

“Okay.”

“Okay.”

Opera Campers get a tour of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion former home of the Academy Awards Ceremony.

Opera Campers get a tour of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion former home of the Academy Awards Ceremony.

Now, you have to know as a professional, I’m thinking; how on Earth can I possibly keep my commitment to the LA Opera if my kid doesn’t want to participate? As a Mom, I’m thinking; if my kid doesn’t want to do something that’s supposed to be fun for her, why would I force her? As a performer, I’m thinking; OMG, the LA Opera? Seriously? Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to be involved?

In the morning, we were up early at around 5:30 am. I wasn’t sure what traffic would look like on a Monday morning in Summer. Rehearsals would be held in downtown Los Angels at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Orientation would commence at 8 am sharp and all campers and their parents would be in attendance. The company of campers accepted into this sold-out program was 55. We learned that some 150 kids who auditioned were turned away.

The Composer of the opera that would be performed by this year’s campers, The White Bird of Poston was there. The Librettist, Conductor, Senior Director of Education & Community Engagement, Assistant Director, Pianist and a Corps of Counselors outfitted with clipboards and headsets where all there. The energy in the room was palpable and it was clear that nothing less than excellence would pass muster. We were introduced to the ground rules and the campers were charged with the responsibility of what it means to be an artist. It was equal parts inspiration and intimidation. I was exhilarated and elated. I wished I could play with all of these talented professionals for the next two weeks!

The hour ended and the parents were invited to leave. I turned to my Daughter with excitement as she turned to me in dread. “I can’t do this. I don’t sing opera. I didn’t audition. I don’t belong here. There are so many kids who want to be here. Let one of them have my place.”

Me: Deep breath. THINK. Choose your words.

Deep breath. Slow exhale. Does this feel right?

Deep breath. Hold. Silence. Release, relinquish resistance.

“I hear you. I know you. These people are the real deal. You deserve to be here. (pause) I promised that you could quit if you didn’t like it. You promised to give it a chance. I will keep my promise and you will keep yours. Let’s see how the day goes. Then you can decide – at the end of the day.”

Librettist and Movement Director, Leslie Stevens leads campers through a movement warm up on the first day.

Librettist, Leslie Stevens leads campers through a movement warm up on the first day.

The parents were gone and rehearsal started. There was singing. I was knocked out by how good these kids sounded from the very first pass at a selection from the score. There was movement – like a dance class, kids lined up in rows, organized by height – so everyone could see. Nothing was wasted every stretch, every note, it all fed some part of the production that would be performed at sold out performances the following weekend.

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Afternoon pick up at the Music Center.

The level of professionalism, the level of passion, commitment, talent – it was electric. The kids ranged in experience, background and age, but the framework laid out by the LA Opera Camp was so strong that there was a place, a meaningful place for each and every kid there. As promised, they worked quickly. Tardiness and distraction were not tolerated. The kids were trusted with a responsibility to tell this story, to dig deep, to do their own research and to rise to a level beyond their own expectations for themselves.

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Composer Eli Villanueva addresses the campers at lunch between performances. Photo by Gennia Cui.

I’ve spent much of my life dedicated to telling stories. I’ve worked professionally as an actor, a singer, a producer, I’ve even crewed a few shows in my time. I know the kind of work that it takes to stage a production. I thought I knew what Opera Camp would be: Opera – challenging, possibly arcane music, Camp – fun alternative activity to being babysat. I was pretty far off! The opera was challenging, beautiful, meaningful and new, the camp was closer to boot camp, or Summer Stock, intense and rewarding. From top to bottom their was respect for the material, the process, the story. It may have been called camp, but this Summer program smacks of the highest levels of professionalism.

At the end of the day, Lizzy K. felt it, too. She decided to stay and experience the whole program. Cheers!

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Lizzy K. and other campers getting into costume. Photo by Gennia Cui.

Before I close this story about our first hand experience with Opera Camp, I want to say a few words about the particular opera that the kids performed this year: The White Bird of Poston. This opera was composed by Eli Villanueva who was also the Stage Director for the production. The Librettist, Leslie Stevens, was the Movement Director this Summer. The opera is set at one of the Japanese Internment Camps, Poston, located on an Indian Reservation during World War II. The kids not only visited museums that deepened their knowledge of the time, place and people in the story, but they also had the opportunity to meet survivors who were children at the time of their internment at Poston.

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Lizzy K. onstage in LA Opera Camp’s The White Bird Of Poston. Photo by Gennia Cui.

 

The material is rich and moving with a message of tolerance and understanding at it’s core. “We all breath as one” resonates beyond the bleak desert setting. The experience of watching The White Bird of Poston performed was so far beyond what I imagined. By now, you’re probably thinking, I must be being paid by the word. I’m not. This was just such a full experience, there’s a lot to say. I can’t tell you if this is right for your child, but it was exactly the right experience for mine. One day after rehearsal – er – camp, my Daughter turned to me in the car and said,

“I don’t know what it is, Mom, but there was a moment today, when we were all moving and singing and I had this feeling – like I was home – like I was where I belonged.”

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Final moments of The White Bird of Poston by the 2014 LA Opera Camp cast. Photo by Gennia Cui.

 

 

 

 

Thank you LA Opera for the opportunity to share this experience. I wish every child could have the feeling of confidence and belonging that you radiate through the community with this program.

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LA Opera Soprano, Karen Hogie Brown, Conductor, The White Bird Of Poston at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre

 

 

Curious about Lizzy’s own account? Read it here (she tells it all in two paragraphs).

Get more info about the LA Opera and LA Opera Camp here.

 

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Program from the first performance!

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Campers and families after the show. Photo by Gennia Cui.

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Campers relaxing between shows. Photo by Gennia Cui.

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Well organized, well supervised, fun. Photo by Gennia Cui.

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